Philosophers from Poverty


The announcement of the UPDirectory has prompted a number of comments about a category not included among its underrepresented groups: philosophers who grew up in poverty. One theme in many of these comments is a sense of isolation and difference that comes from having that kind of background. The point of this post is just to open up a space for philosophers to discuss this issue, their experiences, suggestions, and so on, related to being a philosopher from a background of low socio-economic status.

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ER
ER
6 years ago

About time, thanks Justin. But why “from poverty”? It’s unclear what that means, and many people from traditional blue collar backgrounds won’t feel that they came from poverty, and yet I’m sure they feel underrepresented. Is the word “class” such a taboo? How about socio-economic disadvantage?

Another difficulty with this is that many working class people hide their origins after they gain a foothold in the middle class.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

I feel afraid to tell people in my program about my background and don’t know why. I feel like everyone around me is wealthy or has a safety net. I feel stupid for deciding to go into philosophy without a safety net and when people talk about why you shouldn’t go into a philosophy phd expecting a job I feel like they are talking about how stupid I am. I feel my advisors would look down on me if they knew about my background. I feel that the work I put into my education would be dismissed as typical of my class if people knew about my background. I think about leaving philosophy often on the basis of feeling out of place and worries about being inferior in some little defined sense.

I say all of this just to add one bit of evidence suggesting that there should be resources for people coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I don’t know what form those resources could take. I think a good first step though would be for some established philosophers from such backgrounds to let us know they exist. If I knew of one senior philosopher who came from such a background, I think I would feel much better day to day..Report

K.T.
K.T.
6 years ago

Really happy that this issue is getting on someone’s radar. I’m a first-generation college student from a blue collar background. Most of my education took place at public schools, so I never really “felt” my status. Now as a faculty member at a small elite private school, I feel it all the time. In philosophy, we’re not exactly hip to this issue. Working knowledge of Scotch, classical music, and chess was not part of my upbringing, but think how often these things are either used as examples in philosophy papers or dropped in casual conversation. You get really good at faking it after awhile. Many private colleges now have programs that are targeted at students who are from lower-class backgrounds, but no structural support exists like this for faculty. Just having a group and knowing you’re not alone helps so much.Report

K.T.
K.T.
6 years ago

I’m not a senior philosopher, but I was in your position not long ago! It’s hard for people to self-identify because you do fear that people will look down on you. Unfortunately, that goes for senior people too.

Let this be a call to senior philosophers: if you identify as first-generation or working class, please say so! You don’t know what a difference it makes to us.Report

Justin C
6 years ago

Thanks for posting this, Justin.

As someone who grew up in poverty I do feel isolated in “the academy”. Having grown up in a rough project in Massachusetts and on welfare until my teen years I can say that the road to the PhD has been tough. I think the isolation comes from conversations that colleagues have about their lives and the lack of relating experiences I have with them. I couldn’t help but feel like I was “out of my league” by the unknown words that were being used and the way some of my peers would hide behind their polished vocabulary to cut up my arguments and make me feel stupid. Couple that with dressing different and using slang far too often it becomes difficult to feel like one of the group. The principle of charity didn’t apply to me as often as it did to others because of my presentation (loud and “ghetto”) and my lack of well articulated GRE words. Luckily, I had some great mentors at my M.A. institution and they guided me successfully through the transition.

Growing up around children from families that did not have any college education (I’m also the first from my family to attend college let alone pursue a PhD) brings many challenges that folks often do not (and cannot) see. Besides the financial issues that should be obvious there are sociological issues that might be worse. In high-school I surrounded myself with friends that shared similar lives, it’s what we tend to do at that age. Many of us did not attend college, it’s not what our parents did and wasn’t something we strived for while in school. Class was a way to meet people and socialize, it wasn’t taken seriously and this puts those of us that have that mind set at an early age at a disadvanatge when it comes time to decide what we will do with our lives. A majority of my core friends got into drugs and ended up dead or in jail. The topics we discussed growing up surrounded sports and stature, not academic or philosophical in the slightest (not usually anyway unless we were discussing PEDS in sports). So, walking into a philosophy department was very intimidating for me. Even now that I have had some success in the field I deal with imposter syndrome, as if I do not belong. I’m not sure that will ever go away and I believe that I feel that way at least in part because of my background. Having had to work while an undergrad it took 8 years to finish. It could have taken less time but when one is brought up without money it’s hard not to spend it once you start making it. So being the older one in my cohort also brought with it some further insecurities. Not to mention that I needed to save money to make a move to graduate school, folks from low economic backgrounds rarely move from the city they are in, let alone the state or the country to go to school for something that is likely to end without good financial employment. The academic life seems like a fairy tail, not something someone like me should consider. This is the thought process that needs to be overcome in order to embark on this academic journey. Overcoming these entrenched beliefs seems to get harder once entering the academy. When folks do not share similar interests and often poke fun at things you use to be into yourself it becomes isolating. I say these things in the hopes that others thinking about entering the field coming from a similar background won’t feel alone. It’s embarrassing to discuss these sorts of things but I think it’s important. The perspective of a poverty-stricken individual is important for our discipline and I’d be shocked if this group was represented well in the discipline.

It’s also worth mentioning how hard it is for someone from a low socioeconomic background to “persevere” in the job market. (This isn’t to say it’s not hard for others, I’m just sharing how it’s hard for lower socio-economic folks in different ways) I’m now in my 30’s and have 2 children, how long should I hold on before giving up? I hit the market softly this year (25 apps so far) given that my dept has secured some work for me next year and I need to complete the diss, but given that a top tier program was not in the cards for me (at least in part) BECAUSE of the struggles I had early in life the market is that much worse. I don’t know how I will afford the move when I leave here to accept a job or to change careers. This is tangential but maybe others from similar backgrounds can share their experiences on how they dealt with the job market coming from a lower-economic class.

Anyway, thanks again for opening up a thread to discuss this. Our discipline is about exchanging ideas. If all the ideas are coming form the same race or class that seems to be a skewed view of the world. We should try our best as a discipline to engage professionally with people from all walks of life, even if some of us drop our R’s, wear sweat pants, and listen to rap music.Report

Justin C
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing! I always feel like folks are looking down and many times they probably are not. It’s not easy to be ashamed of your background…Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Anon Grad:

You’re not stupid – the world (and our discipline) is screwed up. I’m in a bit of a bit of a weird sort-of-yes, sort-of-no relationship to this category. My parents’ story could be told as a round about version of the American dream, in that they both came from poverty to achieve a certain measure of success and financial security. As a result, I do have a safety net – without which I would have given up on my academic dreams years ago.

But, despite having a family that highly values education in general and my academic accomplishments in particular, I also have internalized many of the same values which make me embarrassed to need such a safety net.

If academic philosophy is to be anything other than a playground for the rich, it is imperative that it provide sane career paths for people like you.

I don’t promise that I can help, or that I can relate to all of your struggles. But if you’d like a sympathetic set of eyes to correspond with, you can find my contact information on my website.Report

poor but not unhappy
poor but not unhappy
6 years ago

I’m not sure if I grew up in poverty. I grew up poor. Lots of children, very little money. We relied on the generosity of others for our necessities and our splurges. My feet are misshapen from wearing the wrong size shoes for too many years. I was financially responsible for myself at 16, and I put myself through college by working three jobs. My parent’s income was never above the poverty line. We were poor, but our lives were rich. We made our own music, baked our own bread, borrowed books from the library, and put on our own plays. I grew up totally unaware of status markers, and I still don’t get most cultural references.
Academia is a weird world to me. It is full of status markers, but I often am too ignorant to even be impressed by them. I used to be embarrassed by my educational background and feel that it was a fluke that I made it this far. I don’t feel that way anymore. I am at the same university as students from wealthy backgrounds with Ivy educations. They had money and guidance that paved the way for them to end up here. I had none of that. Yet here I am. And because of my background, I can live comfortably on a graduate student stipend.
It used to bother me that I had so little in common with other academics. I disliked being condescendingly told that my upbringing was charming, or quaint. I disliked casual conversations where we talked about our families or childhood and my experience was a glaring aberration that made salient the class distinctions among us. It’s a real mood killer. But as I’ve become more confident that I have a place in academia, I’ve become more confident that my background does not illegitimate my status as a philosopher. And once I bonded with another philosopher who also grew up on government cheese. See, there are more of us than you think!Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Here are two resources people should consult when thinking about privilege:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html

http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/the-privileged-oppressed/

Yes socioeconomic features really matter viz. privilege, but they’re not all that matter.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Yes, Rachel, but judging from the recent campaigns for inclusivity in academic philosophy you’d think that socio-economic status is the least important form of disadvantage in the profession, which is plainly absurd. I’d say it’s the most important one, followed closely by race. (Hello, actual intersectionality, nice to see you here).Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

That’s a very open question, though. I don’t think that class is the most important (though I don’t think it’s the least important). The problem I see is when people, and it really tends to be straight white dudes, raise class as a way to shut down discussion of other axes of privilege. So let’s be sure we’re not doing that here. Class doesn’t share a lot of important features with gender, race, and sexual orientation (John Scalzi discusses some of his reasons for thinking this in his series of popular posts).Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Or we could not make this another unproductive edition of the oppression olympics and just listen to the stories of people like ‘Anon Grad’ and ‘poor but not unhappy’ on their own terms.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Fair enough, nobody should shut down discussions of privilege. There’s also another angle to this though: which types of disadvantage are the ones that the profession is finally beginning to address? The ones that can affect upper middle class people. Many people are frustrated by this. Straight white *working class* dudes especially so, because they’re well aware that this is a zero-sum game.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

Rachel–I don’t see anyone doing this here. I agree that it happens. But I’ve much more often, in the philosophy world, seen discussions of class silenced by the raising of other issues than the other way around. No one is policing e.g. the “what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy” blog, or the feminist philosophers blog, and ensuring that they aren’t allowed to talk about gender stuff without talking about class stuff. How about you just lay off the one public forum that has so far been opened for people who want to talk about class stuff, at the least until there is some evidence that people are using it for political purposes you disagree with? And thanks, Justin, for opening this discussion. I will post something in it soon.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

ER: Many of the things I’m involved with are working from a perspective of gender, race, sexual orientation, *and* class (from an intersectional perspective). So I don’t know how that counts as only issues that affect upper middle class people. Which initiatives are you thinking of?Report

Another Anon Grad
Another Anon Grad
6 years ago

It seems to me that immediately comparing issues of socioeconomic status to issues of race and gender does a lot more to “shut down” discussions of privilege than listening to the stories of those who have been impacted.Report

Anonymous postdoc
Anonymous postdoc
6 years ago

I tick several boxes in the UP directory – I am not white, I am female, my native language is not English and I currently work as a postdoc in an English-speaking country. I also grew up in a working-class background (I wouldn’t say poor, because I used to live in a country where the social safety net *was* (before several rounds of austerity measures) so good that very few people slipped through the mazes. Still, my father was a bricklayer/handyman and my mom a stay-at-home mom so we always struggled to get to the end of the month.
At first, coming from a working-class background was quite the culture shock. The whole thing about pedigrees (in grad schools) and ranks (in journals etc) I still do not get. Most of my fellow students/postdocs came from richer backgrounds; many even had academic parents. But gradually as I advanced through grad school and my multiple postdoc positions, the socio-economic background became less important. I learned to eat with the correct table manners at restaurants (having only been in fastfood restaurants before!) and to talk the way the middle class does, on middle class topics. I winced as I spent half a monthly postdoc salary to buy a nice interview outfit but I did it anyway even though it felt so frivolous to spend all that money on clothes I almost never wear. I still feel reflexively often that I think like a poor person, but I feel that humble beginnings make for a resilient attitude that is helpful later on, especially in the harshness of the job market. I kept on going in years of uncertain employment because I have seen my father go in and out of work, who persevered to make sure we were all clothed and fed.
There are many forms of privilege and disprivilege and this is not the venue to compare them – I think it’s useful to have a thread on working class/poor background. But I can say one thing. I can hide my working class background (and I usually do) in a way that I am unable to hide that I’m female and not-white, or speak with an accent.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Rachel, I don’t know what initiatives you are involved in. I wasn’t talking about you specifically. But if you asked any philosopher what are the most high profile diversity campaigns I doubt that many would mention class. My guess is that gender would be a distant first on that list.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

I have a mixed background. I remember strangers leaving toys at our house when I was young, I was for a time on the free lunch program at school, and I worked almost every summer in graduate school (waiting tables, retail, etc.). On the other hand, my parents are both highly educated, well-travelled people and I have had a decent education, so people often assume that I come from a wealthier background, which I am sure has made it easier for me to be welcomed into certain circles. So while I am aware of the ways that lack of money can prevent access, I have had an easier time relative to others from the same economic status.

I know that Patricia Churchland talks about growing up with very little money and the effect that had on later choices: “‘We didn’t have an indoor toilet until I was seven. We had a two-holer, and people actually did sit in the loo together. I know it seems hilarious now.’ When Pat was a teen-ager, she worked in a fruit-packing plant. Neither of her parents was formally educated past the sixth grade”: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/02/12/two-heads .

Linda Martin Alcoff talks about her working life in some low-paying jobs here: http://www.alcoff.com/content/emphis.html .

Derek Parfit was a “scholarship boy” at Eton: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/reason-and-romance-the-worlds-most-cerebral-marriage .

I am sure that there are others, but these are the first philosophers who came to mind.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

One thing no one has mentioned is that if you come from a working class background it’s much harder to get into an elite grad school. This is a common working class story: You start off studying at SW Nowhere State Univ. (cuz you’re working class), and suddenly you get really into school and especially philosophy, and do extremely well at it. You decide to pursue a PhD. The chances of this person getting into an elite grad program, compared with someone of the same natural ability coming out of an elite undergrad program, are lower, to put it mildly. This is true for many reasons. As a result, talented working class philosophers don’t have the pedigree. I think this is all pretty obvious.

There are a couple of lessons. First, in response to Anonymous Postdoc, yes I agree with everything you say. One thing that can’t be learned away though is your pedigree. There it is, the first line on you CV, and it’s preventing you from getting a job. On the other hand, being a woman or a racial minority is a Diversity Hire — it can help. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying such hires are unimportant. On the contrary, I support current efforts to hire more women and minorities.) Second and more importantly, all this shows a way to combat our discipline’s bias against people with a working class background. Count pedigree less, and actual accomplishments (publications, teaching accomplishments, . . . ) more. I can’t think of another way to combat it, since I don’t see being from a working class background as enabling you to count as a diversity hire any time soon. It’s not a box you can tick, and it’s something about you that’s invisible to the world.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
Reply to  anon
6 years ago

Also, it should be mentioned that there is a difference between “working class” and “poverty”, though, that distinction is shrinking each and every year. Having grown up in the 80’s there seemed to be a stark difference between middle class and poverty. But, given that we are discussing folks that grew up long ago (well, you see the point).

Also to comment 17 (anonymous) : The ease in which one can blend in gets significantly more tricky and difficult depending how low you are on the chain. Not to mention the time and effort that it takes to change the way you speak and when you speak. That’s effort (and added stress) that folks higher on the economic latter do not have to deal with. That rarely goes away and leaves one exhausted!Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Very good points, anon. I seem to recall some stats on Schwitzgebel’s blog: about half of the students at elite grad programmes come from elite undergrad programmes. I would add that people from non English-speaking countries interested in analytic philosophy are in a similar situation to the working class people you mention, at least in one respect: they usually have no-name BAs.Report

Shieva
Shieva
6 years ago

I would appreciate it if we could separate the categories of those who grew up in poverty and those who grew up in blue-collar households. Though there is a lot of overlap in these groups, they are not identical. And each kind of background brings its own challenges. My worry is that, in conflating these, we will cause members of one group to feel overshadowed by members of the other, and their unique difficulties will not be heard.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Thank you to people for posting. It’s really good to see those links and hear from other people dealing with this.

I think that there is a problem of authenticity in these cases too. Class is something you can hide. You can act in ways different from your background and maybe in the process you can even change your self conception. But should you? And does philosophy require you to if you want a future in the profession? I see a lot of people talking about learning how to pass off as having a different background than you do, and I feel the pressure to do so and usually try to. I can’t help feeling though that doing so is betraying the people with whom I most identify. Or tacitly acknowledging that its more desirable to be a person of one class than a person of another class..Report

Anonymous postdoc
Anonymous postdoc
6 years ago

Hi Anon: true – I don’t have a pedigree. I don’t know how hard it would have been to try to get into an elite programme. I never tried, because the idea of elite undergrad and grad programmes wasn’t foremost in my mind (I had other concerns such as proximity to family), and getting any PhD at all was already such a huge step. I agree the emphasis on pedigree harms people of lower socio-economic status, and there is no way they can signal this in their applications (“Look, I might be from University Nowhere, but honestly, I had no idea pedigree was that important and I just wanted to get a PhD).Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I think that there are a lot of us in this boat. Unfortunately, so many people draw the problematic inference that one would only not go to a ‘top’ program because one couldn’t get in.Report

an on
an on
6 years ago

@ Derek Bowman: the “oppression olympics” make a lot of prudential sense, given that academia is a zero-sum game, as pointed out above. The group that can muster more support has a lot to gain. The recently launched “market boost for women” program is a prime example of this.Report

Mr. Q
Mr. Q
6 years ago

I have experienced this, but only with one foot in the grave, so to speak. I am second generation college and lived for a time in childhood truly poor, though by the time I left for college, my family was solidly middle class. Nonetheless, my grandparents are rural working class with all that accompanies it: hunting, low church evangelicalism, traditional gender norms, etc. These people are positively despised by most academics that I’ve encountered, and one is frequently invited to join in condemnation of them, albeit usually indirectly (condemn them via condemning gun-owners, for instance). Personally, I’d rather not spit on my family, and I’ve had to learn to grit my teeth.Report

Plouffe
Plouffe
6 years ago

I propose that instead of “straight white dudes,” we should refer to such men as “straight white men.” I am not quite sure what a “dude” is, but its use seems intentionally (and unnecessarily) pejorative. Unless RM is okay referring to straight white women as “straight white chicks.”Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Forgive me if this point has been made in response to Rachel above, but it strikes me that “straight white dudes” raising the question of class vis-a-vis other markers of exclusion is a problem only if class is not, in fact, the most basic and fundamental context within which exclusion should be addressed. I happen to think it is, and I am a white dude (though I wouldn’t characterize myself as ‘straight,’ not that I think it matters really). You can’t object to me that I am distracting you from discussing other contexts of exclusion without arguing why they are important to consider on their own and apart from class analysis. I frankly don’t give a shit if class politics means less discussion of identity politics, because I think that identity politics is nothing more than a badge that privileged liberals like to wear on their sweater. It has no actual purchase in a country in which less than one percent of the population owns more than fifty percent of the stocks, and where the oligarchs can’t decide whether they are more excited at the prospect of a Clinton or Bush presidency.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

A valuable post and some moving comments — thanks.Report

Luke
Luke
6 years ago

Claiming that Derek Parfit is working class because he was a ‘scholarship student’ at Eaton is ridiculous and suggests a lack of any real understanding of class and privilege in the British context. Both his parents were doctors and he was bought up and spent pretty much his whole life in Oxford. And attended the most elite school in the UK. It is just plain false that he was in any way working class. And the suggestion that he is show a lack of real understanding of class and class based prejudiced in the UK.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

Fair enough. But I didn’t say he was working class. I didn’t know just what his status was, which is why I provided quotes and links. At the time I had looked into the scholarships at Eton and found references that made me think scholarships were only given to those of low economic status, and so I thought it was relevant. I think I have a decent understanding of class and class-based prejudice in the U.K. I am half British and that side of my family split over a class issue (a marriage that was “beneath” one part of the family). When I was at St Andrews I became pretty familiar with class. I hardly think my comment above deserved the claim that I lack understanding of this issue. Does your misspelling of Eton deserve the claim that you lack a real understanding of issues in the U.K.? No. It is a small mistake and it is hard to know what you might know or not know from it.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

The intentional or unintentional misreading of my comments–and their discursive purpose–is amazing. Nowhere did I engage in oppression olympics. Nowhere did I say that ‘white dudes’ can’t raise class issues. Also ‘dudes’ has a specific extension (‘dudebro’). Men =/= dudes.Report

D
D
6 years ago

This is a terrific thread and an important issue to raise, so thank you all who have contributed your personal stories. Getting some more comprehensive data about the percentage of first generation college students who end up philosophers would be an important first step in thinking about how the nature of class privilege in academic philosophy. It would be useful to know, for example, if the discipline of philosophy had a lower percentage of first generation college students who end up being majors/ graduate students/faculty than other humanistic disciplines as is the case with people of color and with women. It would also be useful to know the race, ethnicity and gender composition of those philosophers who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Rachel, I am not sure whether you think that I in particular misrepresented your comments. I do not think I did. But it’s important to be clear that there is a fundamental disagreement here. You do not think that class is the most important framework for addressing problems of discrimination and exclusion. I do. That means that we are not going to agree about what the most important issues to address in the profession are, and that even if we agree that an issue needs addressing, we will likely disagree about means. Because I am (some sort of) Marxist, I have no problem affirming that this is the case. My great frustration with leftists of your stripe is that they always end up being especially enlightened and self-consciously moral liberals. Identity politics is basically liberal politics. But I am opposed to liberal politics. So I *would* try to change our collective focus away from certain evils and toward others. I am only speaking for myself here, obviously. And I don’t mean to be unnecessarily confrontational, but it is important for me to be clear that our politics are incompatible. I think you’re wrong about the fundamentals, and you think I am wrong about the fundamentals. There’s no getting around that. (Sorry for the thread hijack. This will be my last comment.)Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

I’m a senior philosopher at a relatively minor institution, but one thing has stuck with me for the entirety of my career–I feel really lucky to have had the privilege of teaching philosophy and occasionally making the minor contribution to its scholarship.

I come from lower-class white Southern stock. (I know well that one major factor of any upward mobility potential I had was that I was Caucasian, especially in the South, though that ultimately was watered down a bit by my parents’ move when I was 10 to California and good and heavily integrated public schools. Still, being white and male is not inconsequential to explaining where I am today.) My parents never went to high school, but managed to go from tenant farming to working in a casket factory in Tennessee to co-owning a dry-cleaners in California. They worked themselves up from poverty to the middle class, but the lucky move to California (they lost their jobs making caskets) was the biggest boon to my life. I got a solid education in California that I could never have gotten in the horribly underfunded schools in the rural South. Luck (and added luck due to privilege) is nearly everything in retrospective assessments of relative success.

Later after college and becoming enchanted with philosophy I applied to grad schools and even was admitted to some Leiterific ones. But financial realities left me one option after my folks moved back to Tennessee: claim domicile status based on them and attending UT Knoxville. Which I did and earned my PhD, using food stamps (legal then) and the occasional plasma donation to supplement my horrible TA salary. But I loved UT and got a great education there.

No regrets and no real sense I was disadvantaged. The truth is I simply got lucky over and over again to pull myself into a solid middle-class life as a Full Professor at a good if not prominent state school in the University of Wisconsin System. I have never been ashamed of where I came from, and never tried to hide it, or extol it for that matter–it is as they say what it is. But the defining moment of my life in terms of background was when, after earning an MA and well into my PhD, my mom asked one day, “Alan, what is philosophy?” as she stumbled over pronouncing the term. The fact that she supported me even when she had no idea what I was doing brought me to tears that day, and pretty nearly does even today thinking about it.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

I looked at a page at Eton’s website, and it appears that they reserve the term “scholarship” for merit and “bursary” for need. So I now have reason to think that Derek Parfit should not have been included in the list above. Mea Culpa. In Parfit’s place perhaps you will allow Albert Camus, who said of his early years: “I lived in destitution but also in a kind of sensual delight ” (http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ca-Ch/Camus-Albert.html#ixzz3MJGEBKUh). I tried to find someone more contemporary, but was unsuccessful. I hope to see more comments like Alan’s!Report

anonymous SC member
anonymous SC member
6 years ago

Re: “I agree the emphasis on pedigree harms people of lower socio-economic status, and there is no way they can signal this in their applications (“Look, I might be from University Nowhere, but honestly, I had no idea pedigree was that important and I just wanted to get a PhD).” I’m on a search committee this year, and a few recommendation letters for candidates from non-highly-prestigious schools have said something like ‘This student is as good as students from [insert highly prestigious grad programs here], but she/he did not realize the importance of pedigree when applying to grad schools, and wanted to stay close to family.’ So even if the student cannot say it, their recommenders can (and might want to).Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Except that the great weight attached to references is precisely one the factors compounding the importance of pedigree. How likely is it that someone without pedigree will have influential letter-writers?Report

Joshua
Joshua
6 years ago

I have been thinking over the past couple hours about whether to write a post and, if so, what to write. I rarely talk about my poverty and I’ve never done so on a public forum. When I do talk about it, I usually say some things to situate my past poverty. We lived with assistance from the usual public programs (section 8, food stamps, AFDC/TANF, NSLP) along with various private charitable programs. The house we lived in most of the time I was growing up was heated by a single coil space heater. We almost never had a phone, we often had no hot water, and sometimes we had no refrigerator.

Although I grew up very poor, I had some social and even some economic advantages. I am a white male, the oldest child in my family (at least among those that I grew up with), and I lived in a state that had relatively generous public assistance (though far from adequate). I started my higher education at a community college in my hometown. And I received enough money in state and federal grants throughout my undergraduate education that I didn’t have to work very much and I ended up owing just a little money through the federal subsidized loan program. My fellowship and TAship in graduate school gave me more money than I had ever had before. So, I did not feel like grad school was an economic hardship.

Nevertheless, my most commonly recurring thoughts are about my past poverty and my family’s current continuing poverty. I think about these or related issues every single week. When I was in grad school I felt distant from my family and their struggles. I continue to feel guilty about the fact that I left my family to go to school and I feel guilty about the fact that they are still struggling whereas I am living fairly comfortably. I feel out of place in my current environment. It’s hard for me to relate to other people when, for example, they talk about their experiences in childhood or young adulthood or when they reminisce about experiences that are common for people who did not grow up poor. And I feel an odd combination of shame and pride over my background. Shame because in our society it is treated as shameful to be poor and pride because my poverty has played such a strong role in forming who I am and what I value.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

My socioeconomic background is complicated–the short version is that I grew up in a working class family (cab driver and nanny) in a crime-ridden urban neighborhood, but my family is now solidly middle class. My mother went to college while I was growing up. My father never finished high school. I also was very privileged in ways my peers were not–but I won’t get into details. Despite that relative privilege, I have struggled hugely with many of the things mentioned here. Though I am now in an elite department, I took a long circuitous route here. I worked 40 hours a week while getting my undergrad degree at a very non-elite institution and raising a young child. It took me a long time to conceptualize grad school as an option (same with college), and then I ended up transferring. Despite now being pedigreed, I know that this is largely a matter of luck and agree that we ought to think long and hard about the correlation between pedigree and socioeconomic status.

But the thing that I find the hardest in philosophy is just a lack of anyone who can relate to my experiences and life story. It is really isolating. And lonely. Even my closest friends in philosophy seem to think that I have had some crazy unusual life when I tell them about my experiences–they just don’t get that certain things are normal for lots of us. I’ve had three friends murdered in the past three years, countless people I know are in prison or dead. I have witnessed multiple shootings. I had to physically fight my way through middle school and high school. It is really hard to be in a situation where no one can understand these kinds of things (and where they are usually either joked about or coldly used as thought experiments in the classroom) but to also feel completely disconnected from one’s roots (my friends from home can no more understand what I am doing with my life and why than philosophers can understand where I come from, and my family is not much better in this respect). I still feel like a drifter who has disassociated from my past but who can’t find any sort of place in my present.

I also think that we really cannot overestimate how much class privilege influences people’s judgments about intelligence, capabilities, etc. I feel like my whole life is just watching rich kids get rewarded for knowing how to talk right and having gone to private schools their whole lives, over and over again. I think this is the thing to really focus on, and I think it intersects with gender and race issues.

Finally, I just want to emphasize a point already made here: philosophers are classist jerks. They think it is perfectly acceptable to make sweeping generalizations about things like: gun ownership when they have never seen a gun, eating fast food when they have no idea what it is like to be poor or working class, being from a rural and poor area, they have “white trash” dress up parties, they expect us to spend masses of money on food and drinks at places we feel incredibly uncomfortable in. Every time I go to a conference I hear at least one person casually insult my oldest friends or my family via sweeping and ignorant generalizations. My fellow graduate students and the faculty in my department do it too.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

To be clear, my ‘oppression olympics’ remark was initially a response to ER @10, but the spirit of that comment applies to anyone attempting to adjudicate the relative importance of class relative to other sources and dimensions of disadvantage in this thread. That’s not the point of any of the experiences people are posting here. If “an on” @27 wants to see my response to the “Market Boost” program, they’re welcome to look at the DailyNous comment thread on that topic.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

Rachel, go reread Justin C’s comment above. There’s no meaningful concept of “privilege” on which his story isn’t an account of lack of privilege.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

A lot of people I know are completely savvy towards most URM issues, and may even see themselves as budding activists, but in conversation they have no issue whatsoever casually dropping derogatory remarks about homeless people as a whole, sometimes just to express how lazy they might have felt that day or to talk about some outfit. These sorts of things really enforce my implicit worry that people really do have a theory of class and that they would see me or my work differently if they knew about my background. This is also part of the reason why I think that established activists in philosophy need to do more to address socio economic background. Because there are lots of people plugged into the right channels to make them more aware of many forms of privilege, but the channels aren’t making them any more aware of class.

I don’t think that wanting some kind of resources for people with low socio economic backgrounds needs to ask for the support that other issues have.. I think it would be great if there were just a spot for it in the Updirectory so that people who struggle with these things could talk about it with others in philosophy and if in general people in phil programs could hold back from saying explicitly classist things..Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I won’t take this bait. I will only say that you’re misunderstanding what ‘privilege’ refers to.Report

michaela
michaela
6 years ago

Rachel–could you say more about why Justin C’s story isn’t an account of lack of privilege? It really seems like it is to me. Perhaps you are using the term in a technical sense, and I am not claiming that there is ‘no meaningful concept’ there. But for some of us the term is inseparable from class politics. And I think it is very commonly used as attached to class as well. So it seems really wrong to me to suggest that those of us familiar with that (common) use are misunderstanding how the term refers.Report

Nick
Nick
6 years ago

Just adding another story. I am the first in my extended family to earn a bachelors degree and a PhD. My father was out of work on disability (from many tours in Vietnam and then city police force injuries), and my mother worked night shifts on the janitorial staff at a local college so that I could get their employee tuition discount. I myself had no fewer than two jobs throughout my undergraduate career, and some years I would sleep in my car between classes and work shifts (including an overnight job at a hotel).

My first year in grad school, I received a $14.4k fellowship–that was the first year I didn’t have a job since high school, and also the first year my income exceeded the combined income from my parents. I lived frugally throughout grad school, teaching summer classes when I became eligible. I did not learn about wines, liquors, etc because I did not purchase them or attend tasting parties. To this day I confuse colored white wines with reds.

No one ever made me feel excluded because of my background, but then I imagine very few knew my background-attributing behaviors instead to a certain kind of Nerdiness.

I lucked into a tenure track job right out of my PhD, earned tenure a couple years ago. But I still feel odd, especially when people talk about their vacations, or when we decide upon restaurants for visiting speakers. (I rarely vacation with my family, and instead pay off loans or help people struggling in my biological family; and I don’t feel comfortable ordering food that costs more than $10/plate or so at a restaurant.) There are other differences too-e.g., choosing to live in a lower-income neighborhood both for my own comfort and because a rising tide lifts boats. But this post is long enough and my toddler is getting restless 🙂

Thanks for the thread, and thanks to others for sharing their stories.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I posted two links at the beginning of this thread. *please* read them for the answer you’re looking for. A poor straight man still has forms of privilege in terms of white privilege, straight privilege, and male privilege. One can lack some forms of privilege while still having others. It’s not an all-or-nothing concept where one is “privileged” overall or not. Thinking of it in these latter terms is inaccurate and quite misleading. And to return to the point: we always have to be mindful of intersectional forms of oppression and privilege (or lack thereof). Class/socioeconomic privilege is just one of many axes of identity and privilege. But given an intersectional perspective, one cannot ignore that axis. But that also means we can’t ignore the others. My comments in this thread were merely making the latter point: yes class matters quite a lot, but let’s not use that discussion to lose sight of the other axes of oppression.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

@ Anonymous Thank you for saying this. We, in which I include me, who have a great deal of class privilege really need to reflect on our conduct and how it is insidiously integrated with “professional norms”:

“Finally, I just want to emphasize a point already made here: philosophers are classist jerks. They think it is perfectly acceptable to make sweeping generalizations about things like: gun ownership when they have never seen a gun, eating fast food when they have no idea what it is like to be poor or working class, being from a rural and poor area, they have “white trash” dress up parties, they expect us to spend masses of money on food and drinks at places we feel incredibly uncomfortable in. Every time I go to a conference I hear at least one person casually insult my oldest friends or my family via sweeping and ignorant generalizations. My fellow graduate students and the faculty in my department do it too.”Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Maybe we can be more specific with how we use the word privilege. For instance I was thinking that there are lots of kinds of privilege, like white, male, class, etc and that when someone said “privilege” they generally meant a specific kind. I assumed intersectionality just meant that you can have some kinds while lacking other kinds, and that there can be complicated relationships between the kinds.

So when Aeon said that Justin C. lacked privilege I thought he was saying that he lacked a specific kind of privilege, and that the thrust of his claim was that there exists a kind of privilege (class privilege or something like that) that the person in question lacks. As someone who worries about class and who doesn’t see it addressed often in philosophy, I thought that whether class privilege was a type of privilege at all was in question. Then when you replied I was worried that you were saying that it definitionally wasn’t a type of privilege, and thus it isn’t the kind of thing that there should be resources for. To be fair, you had said that it was a kind of privilege before, so I was sort of confused by your statement in general.

If Aeon is interpreted as saying that someone lacking class privilege lacks privilege of any kind though, then that would be clearly wrong. And if people are saying that lacking a specific kind of privilege means lacking privilege of any kind, then your contributions are very urgent.

All of that just to say, thanks for explaining that! I was confused about what you and other people were disagreeing with before and think I understand now.Report

annonGrad
annonGrad
6 years ago

So, I wrote something that was too bitter. I am deleting it, and instead I’ll refer you all to Phil Och’s “Love me, Love me, Love me, I’m a Liberal.” I often sing it to myself after leaving departmental parties or dinners with speakers. You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u52Oz-54VYwReport

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

A quick, supportive anecdote and observation for those who’ve said they’re from blue collar backgrounds and feel out of place or ashamed to reveal this in professional settings: I’m a second generation college student; my parents were the ones to pull us into the middle class. My father was raised by a single mother who worked as a telephone operator and he went to his state’s school on a scholarship. My maternal grandparents were farmers who never got beyond the 8th grade; my mother went to a religious college, the only one her parents were comfortable letting her attend. I, in contrast, grew up in Princeton, NJ with the huge advantage of having attended their excellent public schools.

Perhaps as a result of this contrast, I am in AWE of people in philosophy who come from blue collar backgrounds. I have no doubt that my place in the discipline in part due to my many advantages, one of which is class. My parents, on the other hand, succeeded despite their class disadvantage–*that* takes talent, hard work, and is truly impressive. In philosophy, that also takes talent, hard work, and, because the safety net issue mentioned above, a true dedication to and love for philosophy. All of these are qualities I greatly admire; I would be very surprised if this attitude is idiosyncratic to me.

One last thought: There is no doubt that, although talent and hard work were necessary for my parents’ mobility, their being white played a necessary role as well. And this advantage is one I’ve inherited.Report

another anon grad
another anon grad
6 years ago

This is a great thread. I just wanted to add my story as well.

My parents have some postsecondary education, since they both went to Bible College. But growing up my family had very little money. We lived in one of the worst parts of our city. Our neighborhood was filled with a lot of fighting, alcoholism, etc. I remember seeing a lot of kids, 3-4 years old, wandering around in diapers, crying. My parents owned a house and a vehicle, but only because of the generosity of others; those things were basically given to our family. We almost always got our clothes second-hand. I remember being really excited when I was 10 years old and my parents bought me a brand new t-shirt. I had a few jobs to have spending money for myself. Some were awesome. Some were crappy. I have picked up a lot of used condoms.

I paid my own way through university, at first by slinging fast food. Then I lucked out with a job where I worked 26-30 hours a week doing really shitty, backbreaking work. I was happy with it, though, because I got paid a decent amount to live on and pay for school with. I’m now in a good grad program with a fellowship, which is great. I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do philosophy.

But so what. I worked hard, I had to put up with some shit, big deal. Many commenters above had it far worse. Plus I’ve been lucky in terms of gender and race.

What bothers me more deeply is the general higher-class attitude in informal and formal academic/philosophical settings. I think this doesn’t just refer to the amount of money your parents have. This refers to the sort of educational class they are in. People from a higher SE class just have this attitude or demeanor. There’s this certain way they talk, dress, and act, and you have to have that demeanor to be accepted. It’s like a mating call; people from middle-class, educated backgrounds can just recognize each other. I don’t know how to put on that demeanor, most of the time. I was raised to put on a very different kind of demeanor. I feel really out of place in formal philosophical contexts: e.g. when I’m giving a paper/presentation, or raising a question. I think people can probably read my SE status pretty well, so I feel a lot like I’m really faking it, and everybody can sense that, so we all know that I’m really faking it. So, what’s the fucking point. Other times I can luck out and fake the demeanor.

It’s also weird coming from a low-church evangelical background. I love my family. But so much of what you’re supposed to do in conversations with philosophers is shit on the kinds of people they are. You don’t just passingly complain about those kinds of people, you have to have long conversations where everybody really focuses the hate on them. And I don’t mean the theism here. I mean the hunting and the country music and the creationism and the climate-change denying and the republicanism. Yeah, sure, those things are bullshit (at least the last three things are), and we oughtta be complaining about it. But do we have to be so intense about hating the people who are wrapped up in it?

Three additional points: (1) I’ve known a couple other students in philosophy (grad and undergrad) from lower SE backgrounds. I’ve seen professors simply not take them seriously, even though they were really intelligent, and it’s clearly on account of their SE background. I’ve been lucky. (2) The amount of SE-awareness seems to vary greatly according to different graduate programs. (3) Obviously class issues don’t erase or minimize issues of race and gender in the profession. At all.Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Justin C. is privileged in ways the Obama children can only imagine.Report

michaela
michaela
6 years ago

Rachel–I posted under my name because I thought maybe you would realize that I was well aware of the things that you are talking about, and that I don’t need to read a HuffPo article to learn about the basics of oppression and privilege, and hence that you didn’t need to talk to me in the same tone that you talk to the dudes you are talking to. However, earlier you denied that Justin C’s story was a story about a lack of privilege. Clearly both the links you posted and the comment you just posted are consistent with JC’s story being a story about a lack of privilege, even if JC is privileged in other ways. Just as when someone posts a story on the what it’s like blog, they are often stories about lack of privilege due to their being women–even if they are white women or rich women, those stories still ought to be taken seriously as stories about lack of privilege, and we shouldn’t automatically assume that they aren’t aware of other privilege and try to minimize the importance of what they are reporting by jumping on them for not explicitly acknowledging that privilege. You repeatedly came off in this thread as a person who was trying to derail discussions of class privilege by insisting that we instead talk about race or gender. I agree that these things are not separable and nor is the privilege or lack thereof that comes with them. But you need to make space for people to talk about an issue in our profession that is extremely salient for many of us and has previously received almost no attention. For me this issue has been much *more* pervasive and salient than the lack of privilege I’ve experienced due to being a woman, which often (but not always) manifests itself in much more subtle ways. There is systematic exclusion of people from poor and working class backgrounds to academia in general, and to philosophy specifically, and I find it immensely frustrating that people are being prevented from discussing that, and that the discussion is being derailed by what, in other contexts, would be considered totally unacceptably dismissive commentary.

Not to Rachel, just general comment: FWIW I am somewhat (but not completely) sympathetic to Ligurio’s point (despite some sinking suspicion that Ligurio is not someone I want to associate myself with). It is really hard to engage with people who are fundamentally committed to liberalism when one thinks that liberalism is unjust and horrible. This is especially true in philosophy, in my experience, where nearly every person is fundamentally committed to liberalism, and often in ways that make it simply impossible to have a conversation with them. This is why I have entirely avoided political philosophy and almost all of ethics. When people have starting assumptions that they take as axiomatic, fundamental, and unbreakable, and I think that those starting assumptions are radically incorrect, it is extremely hard to engage with them. But Ligurio is I hope aware that it is possible to be a feminist and a Marxist, and to care deeply about issues of race and gender and be a Marxist (I am not a Marxist, but it is at least closer to my views than the status quo is), and that one needn’t make things into a competition between what kinds of oppression trump others to hold radical, progressive anti-liberalist political views. I wanted to mention this because I am at least committed to the idea that without a total revolution overthrowing the current political system, none of the problems for any of us in academia are going to be fixed (except by band-aid solution, but I don’t consider that a fix). I am sure that part of why no one talks about class in philosophy is that to do so would either be to radically challenge the very structure of academia itself and everything providing its scaffolding, or to do something watered-down, hypocritical, and worse, but which I won’t describe here because I think it will offend too many people.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Michaela: I suppose I mistook what you meant about the story being one of a lack of privilege. Of *course* it’s a story about a lack of socioeconomic privilege. Was that every seriously in doubt? I took the question to be about whether that story is therefore about a lack of any form of privilege. So I suppose there’s been some misunderstanding on both sides.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

And perhaps I came off as “You repeatedly came off in this thread as a person who was trying to derail discussions of class privilege by insisting that we instead talk about race or gender” but my posts were decidedly not with that aim or content. I didn’t say we should supplant discussion of class privilege with discussions only of gender and race etc. I said that we shouldn’t supplant *those* discussions with only class privilege: we have to consider them all viz. intersectionality. However, I’ve noted that comments about intersectionality often get portrayed as wanting to derail and only talk about the other issues. I think that philosophy needs to talk about class issues more. My point was merely–and I’ve repeated this more than once in this thread–that in having those conversations, we should keep in mind the other axes. There are ways that, e.g., black people experience poverty that are importantly different from how white people experience poverty, and they’re not fully captured by ‘white privilege’ because of intersectionality.Report

Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

The stories described on this thread are really inspiring and useful. I just want to add that as DUS at a diverse state school, it continues to shock me a bit (simultaneously dismaying and impressing me) when I talk with the many philosophy majors who have to work 20-40+ hours per week, while typically taking 5 courses (an experience that is not, of course, unique to this school or phil majors). I compare this to my privileged experience as an undergrad at Emory, where I would take the normal 4 courses per term and only worked in summer. Putting aside all the other (and earlier) ways that opportunity is not equal, this difference in amount of time and stress during college seems monumental and suggests that we should find more ways to diminish it.Report

K.T.
K.T.
6 years ago

Hearing everyone’s stories is like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s so helpful to know I’m not alone.

As another anon grad says above, the expectation that you have to “shit on the kinds of people” that you’re related to is particularly true of those of us who grew up in the south. I can’t count the number of times philosophers have said “the south” with utter disgust in my presence. Like Alan, I don’t extol the virtues of southern working class life: as a woman who was interested in books and not traditional gender roles, I often experienced it as a hostile place. But “those people” are my family and it’s insulting to listen to philosophers who I know have NEVER interacted with a working-class southerner talk about them like they’re not even human.

To Rachel’s point about different forms of privilege, yes absolutely! I hope no one in this comment thread would deny that being poor, white, and male grants you privilege that some others don’t have. I was just recently talking to another first-gen poor southern academic who said exactly this: he knew full well that a lot of his success came because he was white. I know the same thing is true of me. And by no means do I want to downplay that. But please hear these stories not as the (all too common) refrain “well, I’m marginalized too!” The shame, isolation, and fear is very real, and the fact that I’m reading stories from other philosophers like me is so healing, it’s bringing me to tears.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Three points:

1. I really like what Anon 4:18 said yesterday about working class people getting “tracked” out of top ranked grad programs and more conventionally desirable jobs. That happens to a lot of people, and it’s something schools need to think about when they’re hiring philosophers. I frequently hear liberal arts college folks say they look for new professors who themselves have liberal arts college backgrounds. I understand the view. You want someone who knows the culture and who’s a good fit. But “fit” often serves to cover over a lot of unintended marginalization and perpetuation of privilege. Liberal arts colleges should definitely think very carefully over these issues and how to avoid simply reproducing privilege over and over again. My impression (and I think I’m hardly alone in this impression) is that liberal arts colleges are a lot more advanced in their thinking about how to advance gender and race diversity than they are about how to advance the breaking down of class divisions.

2. As many have argued (especially in anarchist and some communist circles), class might be fundamentally different from gender and race such that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to merely add class as an axis of oppression. The goal of many people isn’t to add class diversity. It’s to eliminate class. (I do know some folks also think gender and race classification is inherently oppressive and should be eliminated, too, but I’m setting that aside for now.). And so there might be some fundamental difficulties in thinking about class that don’t arise the same way in thinking about gender and race.

3. For my own background, I’m a first generation college student who attended public schools in an under-served rural area. I lucked out by landing at Indiana University as an undergrad, because it’s a very solid state school. People who attended regional state universities in Indiana (or the big state school in states with worse state universities) didn’t have the same chances I did to work with very good philosophers as an undergrad. When I was applying to grad school, I was accepted by some schools that cater to some very wealthy and privileged people. And I found some pretty extreme culture shock when I visited. I chose the school I did for grad school in part because I found it to be an environment better for people from my background. It definitely played a role in my grad school choice.Report

anon
Reply to  Matt Drabek
6 years ago

Matt, it would be very helpful if you could point in the direction of the “many” who have argued the points in your number 2.Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

I just want to confirm Michaela’s suspicion that I am *not* somebody you want to be associated with. But luckily the strength of a claim has nothing to do with the popularity of those who happen to hold it.

P. S. Intersectionality I affirm. But the fact that various phenomena are intersectionally related does not entail that none of the phenomena is more basic than others.Report

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

I’m grateful for all the stories people are posting. It helps a lot with feelings of isolation. I’m a first gen college student. Back in the 70s it was still possible to break into the U.S. middle class with only a high school diploma, and my father’s time in the military helped him get a decent job. We wore thrift store clothes and ate a lot of rice+beans, but we were in a safe neighborhood with decent schools. I went to a pretty diverse state school, so I didn’t really feel the class thing until grad school. That was a shock. I spent a lot of time my first several years just trying to build up my cultural capital. I watched a lot of foreign films I never learned to enjoy, listened to a lot of music that gradually grew on me, and read some truly obnoxious periodicals from New York. I hid my lack of safety net as well as I could. I remember being really embarrassed when I was on the market and got a campus visit, and the school wanted me to pay for my own trip and then they would reimburse me in a month or two. I had to tell them I couldn’t do it.
I’ve gradually acclimated, so I don’t feel too weird at work, though I do feel like I’m putting on an act. The hardest thing to take, I think, is visiting home and feeling that huge disconnect with my family. They think I’m a snob, and they’re probably not wrong. I end up feeling like I’m putting on an act with them as well, so there’s no place I feel completely like myself.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

I identify with a lot of what you are saying, and I come from a similar situation. Even owning books is a privelege for me because we moved so much and could afford so little that owning too many personal things was never an option. Learning to dress and behave like a person of a different class has been hard but then there are the little things like hiding the look of surprise and mild discomfort when I walk into a professor’s office and see the beautiful hardwood bookshelves lined with expensive hardcovers. I feel incredibly lucky but also at the same time, acutely aware that it might be just a freak of luck that I ended up where I am.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

This is why even remotely moderate people have trouble with the way “privilege” is used in academic discourse. Folks are seriously suggesting that Justin C enjoys a life of greater privilege than Sasha and Malia.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

Michaela said: “…without a total revolution overthrowing the current political system, none of the problems for any of us in academia are going to be fixed (except by band-aid solution, but I don’t consider that a fix). I am sure that part of why no one talks about class in philosophy is that to do so would either be to radically challenge the very structure of academia itself and everything providing its scaffolding, or to do something watered-down, hypocritical, and worse, but which I won’t describe here because I think it will offend too many people.”

This is basically my own view.Report

anon prof
anon prof
6 years ago

I’m also from a poor background, but what seemed to be more relevant as I made my way into academia than lack of funds was lack of the socio part of socioeconomic class. My parents still think professors are all arrogant and pretentious. They often refuse to tell family friends what their kid does these days. Many people I encountered in grad school didn’t understand anything about this kind of background. But for me, academia was my escape. It was a place where I found people who actually liked things that I did, who appreciated the kinds of books I always loved but also always was made fun of for, even by my family members. It was a place where others were shocked by many of my areas of ignorance and crassness, but were kind and patient with me, helping me learn more about things that I had never had access to before. Finding out that I could do this was my escape from my hometown, from that small impoverished perspective on the world that was all I had growing up. Yes, there were a lot of weird awkward moments when I would say something that I immediately realized, from others’ expressions, was somehow incredibly low class. But most of the time, they shook it off and were kind and supportive and nonjudgemental. I feel like I found my people in this line of business, which is amazing, because I did not think that I would ever have such a fulfilling life as I do now.

This part might sound harsh, but I think it is worth putting out there anyway. I had to take out some massive student loans to get through college and grad training. I did that in full knowledge of the fact that I might not be able to make it up the ladder, and I estimated that there was about a 50/50 chance I would be paying off those loans for 30 years with the menial physical work I was doing at the time. And I did it anyhow, because really, how often do you get to really take your shot at your dream? Even if I couldn’t get a job as a philosophy professor, it would have been worth it to know that at least I had done all that I could to get there; I hadn’t let the chance go because of the risk, and been left wondering what would have happened.

I have always thought of getting a job as a professor in philosophy as something like making it as a famous musician, or getting drafted for a professional league sports team. You can aspire to it all you want, and be really good at your sport, and do all the practices and camps and put in all the time, but still not quite make it. And that is just how it is – you make it or you don’t, and you take your shot but if that doesn’t work, you aren’t entitled to be on a pro team just because you really want to, or just because you did well in college sports, etc. It has been very hard for me to listen with a sympathetic ear to many fellow grads who seemed to think that having gotten a prestigious degree, and made it through the diss, meant they really should get a job. That they seemed to think academia was the only job they would be willing to do seemed narrowminded and, to be blunt, rather spoiled. You don’t get drafted into the pros just because you put in the time and had good numbers. If you really want it, work incredibly hard, and come very close, you may just still not get it, and that is unfortunate for you, maybe, but not thereby unfair. There are a lot of jobs out there, and just because you want to be an academic doesn’t mean you get to.

Kids from lower class backgrounds seemed to get this more – we had actual back up plans if we did not get jobs. We had a realistic sense of what other jobs looked like, and were much less likely to complain about small inconveniences in academia. Kids from more privileged backgrounds just couldn’t seem to get their heads around the idea that they might not get the TT job just because they wanted it and did the right things. For me, I moved way up the socioeconomic ladder by getting a job as a prof. For others, it seemed like anything other than an academic job would be moving down that ladder, and they felt that to be fundamentally unfair, even though I don’t think it is.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Absolutely no one here has said this, and it’s absolutely not an inference one could reasonably draw from anything said so far in this thread.Report

Justin C
6 years ago

So much for a safe place to share your personal experiences. Not sure why the discussion is about *other* privileges and why I feel the need to defend my sharing of a personal experience. It was hard enough to share and now I must defend it? I’m a white male and I have that privilege, I get that and that is not insignificant. That said, I thought this was a thread about class privilege. Why must people without class privilege ALWAYS be forced to discuss other privileges they have? Why must it always be a comparison? We’re all shooting for the same thing here, REPRESENTATION.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

I wasn’t at all asking you to defend anything. I wasn’t asking you also to discuss forms of privilege you have. People have read that into my comments. But it’s simply not there. The point of bringing up gender/race etc is that these *intersect* with class such that the way a white male experiences poverty will tend to be very different from how a black woman experiences it. This is *not* at all to deny that the white male still lacks economic privilege. He does! And let’s talk about that, because it matters! But let’s also not lose sight of how the other axes are directly relevant to conversations about class privilege (or lack thereof).Report

anon prof
anon prof
6 years ago

Now that I am thinking about this, it has gotten to me a bit. A few more thoughts: growing up in a lower socioeconomic class is a very different kind of experience for lots of people. There is much about it, though, that is not noble or enlightening or something to be held up as personally bettering. For the most part, for me, it was a crushing and grinding experience, and I don’t feel pride in what it gave me, so much as pride in having figured out a way to escape it. Not having enough money to buy food, and just walking around hungry – it feels like it eats your humanity. Working hard labor jobs for piddly wages takes everything worthwhile out of life sometimes, because you don’t have energy for anything else, and you can feel the stupidity and pointlessness of it grinding away at you every moment of a ten hour shift.

And, as others have mentioned, getting fellowship and TA support in grad school felt like a miracle. My household income as a grad student suddenly surpassed that of many people I grew up with who had landed jobs they felt very lucky to have, ones working in an office where they didn’t risk losing digits. Instead of going further into debt, I could actually pay for rent and food comfortably, and even save a bit (frugal habits pay off in grad school). Just the fact that I was being paid to do philosophy and to teach people philosophy felt like being taken seriously for the first time.Report

Junior Professor
Junior Professor
6 years ago

This has been a wonderful and important discussion. One of the great things about it is how it serves to bring to light a different dimension of discrimination, personal difficulty, and exclusion.

I am a member of a traditionally underrepresented group, and although I grew up in a middle-class household, there was no safety net, as one of my parents was a recent immigrant who came here with nothing. My parents managed to support me and my several siblings (all close in age), but there was no wealth being generated, no money saved for college, etc.

I attended a very mediocre public high school where only a third of the students went on to any kind of AA or BA degree, but was fortunate to get into a good school for college. Throughout college, I had to work 20+ hours in work-study jobs and take out heavy loans (these would now be grants, sigh…). This was all fine, and relatively manageable. What was much harder was when my siblings ran into trouble while I was in college and later graduate school, and that stress and anxiety came back to me. One of my siblings got in trouble for drug-related crime, and with only a relatively inattentive public defender helping, ended up with a felony conviction, and later spent significant time in jail for other offenses, all of which has dramatically curtailed his life options. Another sibling has had various drug and mental health issues and spent time homeless and involuntarily committed off the street into relatively terrifying state mental health institutions. Another sibling ran into significant financial trouble. All of them have been on food stamps and various other forms of state assistance.

I mention this here because these are all the kinds of problems that people with more money would have been able to address in very different ways, and much less would have fallen on me, the one person in my family with various kinds of skills and relatively basic knowledge of these things. I have spent countless hours on the phone and in person with my family and with various state agencies, trying to help solve and address and cope with these problems and their significant effects. While an undergraduate I strained relationships with some professors by having to reschedule meetings and deadlines, and I never felt comfortable explaining the personal reasons that required this rescheduling. While in graduate school, I was the primary person in my family responsible for helping with my siblings due to geography and money, and I felt a great deal of stress, guilt, frustration, and anxiety. It was a great relief to talk to one of my advisors at one particularly difficult point, although it was hard to do so, and I think there is still a great deal of stigma attached to even having family members dealing with these problems, so that I was reluctant to say anything. I repeatedly questioned my choices regarding being in graduate school and staying in graduate school, rather than getting a job that would pay more so that I could help my family.

One thing it made me think about, and which I continue to think about now that I am a professor, is how little professors know about what their students are going through or dealing with. It has made me try to be more understanding of students as people with a lot else that might be going on. Sadly, I think these kinds of stories are not particularly uncommon for children of middle-class families or working-class families. It’s a fine line between modest success and disaster. That’s where I feel this kind of thread is particularly useful, in a way similar to the various “what it’s like” blogs. It lowers a certain kind of epistemic barrier and, I hope, will make people more sensitive to what they do and say and assume.Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Justin C., the answer to your question is simple. It is because identity politics is now the default framework for the Left’s conceptualization of oppression, with the result that “class” becomes a kind of identity that must be made commensurate with other “identities,” such as being white, or black, or queer, a man, a woman, a transgendered person, and so on. (Drabek has helpfully suggested above why class is importantly different from these other things. His thoughts are worth pursuing.) The demand that we treat class as commensurate with these other things leads people into untenable positions. Such as the position that some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet who happen to be women or black or gay or queer or whatever, lack, by virtue of these identities alone, the privileges that come with being white and male. If one were to admit that there is no meaningful sense in which these people can be said to lack privilege (given actual existent reality), then one would come to see that, while different forms of oppression *are* intersectional, class is fundamentally different and more basic than the rest. Not seeing this is the very essence and–I am sometimes tempted to think–the very point of identity politics within the neoliberal economic-political order.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

Ligurio’s 2:32 comment makes a similar point to the one I was about to make, namely that this thread demonstrates that the concept of “privilege” and the concept of “traditionally underrepresented groups” don’t track each other evenly. African-Americans are most definitely a traditionally underrepresented group, but it wouldn’t follow from that that Cornell West’s or Colin Powell’s kids would “lack privilege” in the higher ed pursuits; whereas white males are clearly not a traditionally underrepresented group, yet the suggestion that Justin C and the several others from similar circumstances who have posted here are privileged is obtuse. As Ligurio suggests, part of the problem is in the essentializing reductivism that attaches to the collectivizing impulse. Might be better to take people as they come, their invidual circumstances being a factor of many different things – which is obscured by the idea that some ascriptive group membership defines them.Report

Clifford Sosis
6 years ago

We prefer the term ‘trailer park philosophers’, thank you very much!Report

Ex Grad Student
Ex Grad Student
6 years ago

I don’t typically post to forums like this, and I especially don’t tend to engage in public autobiography, but I regard the topic of this discussion as so important, both to academia at large and to myself as an individual, that I’m breaking my rule on this occasion.

We’ve heard in these threads from many who suffered the trials and humiliations of class discrimination, both intentional and unintentional, within academic philosophy grad programs, but persevered and went forward to become professors and full members of the profession. These stories have been inspiring and therapeutic; it is incredibly edifying to know that my experience was not mine alone, but shared by many others. I want to briefly sketch a different story however, one that did not end in a career in academia.

I grew up poverty class in a small, rural southern town with few jobs and no culture of higher education to speak of. High school graduation rates were low; many of my classmates were expected to leave school as soon as legally possible to help out with the family farm or find a low paying service job to help support their siblings. I did the latter, but I knew that this was not the place or environment where I wanted to raise my children or ultimately to plant my headstone. So, for fifteen years I set money aside from every paycheck until I had enough of a security net to quit my job and apply full-time at a small university a few towns over. Even then, I ended up taking out loans, which I am still paying off. To help make ends meet I took full time staff positions at the university, while maintaining a full course load in philosophy. I never once felt discriminated against on the basis of class during my undergrad career. If my classmates and professors weren’t themselves from my socioeconomic background, then they had friends and family who were. Eventually, I graduated summa cum laude and began applying to grad schools as far away from the south as possible.

I was immediately accepted into the MA program at a major research university – one with a strong reputation for progressive social justice activism – and for the first time in my life I realized what class discrimination looked like from the inside. I don’t have a noticeable accent, so people would openly joke about the south and the ignorant, gun-owning, poor white trash who spawned there in front of me, and I would grit my teeth and feign a smile. When I did tell people where I was from, they would express sympathy that I had to grow up around ‘those kind of people,’ and how great it was that I got away from them. My friends, my parents, weren’t people to my colleagues. They were less than human, a punchline at best. In the few occasions that I attempted to protest this position publically, I was immediately shut down. I was informed that my relatives and closest friends, who still lived in abject poverty and struggled daily to meet the needs of basic survival, were, by virtue of their race, gender, religion, and/or political affiliation, de facto members of a privileged class. Without a hearing, they were judged racists, hate-mongers, oppressors, the Enemy.

This period of my life was marked by extreme depression and anxiety. A tremendous amount of psychic real estate was given over to parsing the extreme disconnect I felt between my background and upbringing and the society I now found myself in. Finally, I completed my MA, severed my ties with academia, and embarked upon the course that eventually led to my becoming a union organizer. I now advocate specifically on behalf of the underprivileged and the working class, and I find that I can once more lay head to pillow without feeling like I’m betraying by association the people who sacrificed so much for me in my lifetime.

I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this thread, which has on the whole strengthened my appreciation for the philosophical community as a whole. I do however want to point out that there has been a string of comments here, by one prominent philosopher in particular, that have re-opened those long-dormant scars and I think provide a sadly concrete example of the dismissal of the actual struggle of the poverty and working classes by certain academics who identify with contemporary social justice movements. The general tone, comments, and attempts to redirect this important discussion away from the plight of the poor in academia and toward her own particular hobby-horses demonstrate, I believe, why academics in particular and the left in general have immense difficulty connecting with the working poor, a problem that gets translated into electoral defeats that paradoxically worsen the plight of those very disadvantaged citizens. This kind of talk only serves to alienate the poverty and working classes. It wins no hearts and minds, and serves only to preach to the already-convinced among the choir.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

I’m in broad agreement with Ligurio. Here’s another way to put his point, or something like it. It’s crude and bordering on inconceivability, but I have to rush to a very middle class North London wine and cheese party, so bear with me. Imagine two worlds, each differing from the actual world in just one way: in world 1 there are no inequalities of wealth and power, whereas in world 2 there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation. Which world would be more just? More importantly, which one would be better? The general thought is simply that a lot of what makes identity discrimination really bad is enabled by socio-economic structures, whereas the opposite isn’t the case. That’s similar to what Michaela said @56, I think.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

I imagine the issue of how class relates to the various axes of oppression is an issue we’re not going to make a lot of progress on there. That said, it’s worth following up to Ligurio’s post to note that there are a lot of ways to proceed. For instance, though I think class is probably fundamentally different from race, gender, et al., it doesn’t follow that it’s more *basic* than race, gender, et al (nor does it follow that it’s *not* more basic, so I don’t want to say that Ligurio’s view is somehow obviously wrong). The issue of which type of oppression is more basic was pretty hot 30-50 years ago, but I think that debate is tired and I haven’t seen anything worthwhile written on the topic in my lifetime. For whatever it’s worth, my own impression is that class is different from race and gender in such a way that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to draw comparisons or even ask which one is more basic (and I also think this realization is why the debate has petered out).Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

I thought nested replies weren’t allowed here. But if they’re allowed, this is a reply to anon who asked for arguments on the differences between class and the various axes of oppression: You can find a pretty good introductory, generally accessible article here: http://libcom.org/library/insurrections-intersections-feminism-intersectionality-anarchism

I’d also recommend poking around libcom, or just googling “anarchism and intersectionality” or “communism and intersectionality.”Report

Maureen
Maureen
6 years ago

I so appreciate this conversation and other peoples experiences really resonate with my own. I grew up regularly standing on line (is that a Brooklyn thing – do most people say “in line?”) for government cheese with my mother, My five siblings and I went to the American Legion hall for Christmas presents, and the free dental clinic at the NYC Board of Health was where we had our cavities filled. In fact my teeth were so jacked up that when I got my tenure track teaching job – I was mortified to go to a real dentist for the first time as an adult (and a professor! I had to write that on the form) and explain the state of my crooked poorly maintained teeth. However I also realized – specifically at the Board of Health – that because my mother and all of her kids were white we got to skip ahead of the Puerto Rican and Black kids who took a number in the waiting room. The white working class receptionist ushered us in. This is to Rachel’s point about intersectionality. I did get to pass particularly as my neighborhood became gentrified and I benefitted tremendously from studying the language and the bookcases and the food of the families that I babysat for – young “pioneers” as they were called who were buying the brownstones that were formerly rooming houses and renovating them in upscale 80s fashion. I never saw the NY Times outside of a newsstand until I began babysitting. It was strictly the Daily News in our house. One of the babysitting mothers, a Wellsley grad, helped me to write my grad application letter. Both of my parents grew up in the neighborhood (though not in Brownstones but apartments over stores). Now no one in my family including me who is the first and only person to finish college (and then earn a Ph.D) could ever afford our neighborhood. Having NYC and CUNY in particular as resources while I was growing up made it possible for me to go from Brooklyn College to CUNY to my current tenured position in the midwest. I recognize that if I grew up in a rural community I would have had far less access to resources and most likely not have the reduced tuition that CUNY offered. While my race, sexual orientation, my parent’s relatively stable marriage, and NYC’s resources helped me I still know how deeply my roots are in the poor and working class (given our families erratic income we were sometimes living in poverty and sometimes working class). It took me a long time to even admit my story and how poor we really were (6 kids, 2 adults in 5 rooms with everything pulling out into a bed “except the toilet” as my father used to say) to other academics but with age (and tenure) I feel less vulnerable to unfair judgment. There have certainly been other issues in the academy that I have had to contend with but I am particularly dedicated to the branch campus where I teach because so many of my students are like me – bright sons and daughters of poor and immigrant families with very few resources. Seeing the success of some of these students over the years has been one of the best parts of my job. I never hesitated sharing my story with them. I appreciate the encouragement from younger faculty here for us who are more senior to “come out” about our class history. Thank you for the contributions others have made to this discussion.Report

Aaron W
Aaron W
6 years ago

Glad to know there are philosophers who can empathize with some of my childhood experiences (like getting evicted from apartments, being criticized by other kids for my non-designer clothes, having my Super-Nintendo pawned to put food on the table, ….granted I was fortunate enough to have an Aunt who bought it for me)

Hopefully online discussions like these will soon lead to most us coming from low-SES households being willing to talk more about it in person—at conferences, dinners, etc.—not to make those of us coming from economically privileged households feel guilty, but so that those of us coming from low-economic households will be able to identify one another and share our experiences one-on-one. Like groups defined by sexual preference, we’re a group for which its very difficult to determine how many of us there are, which adds emotional difficulty.

One point which should be emphasized (not that it hasn’t been at all), is that academics who come from low SES households are far more often coming from households with not very high education attainment, and where English, though our first language, was not spoken most properly, or with an educated vocabulary. Though I significantly improved my written and spoken English, especially in college and in grad school, even in grad school I would occasionally, particularly while speaking, slip back to colloquialisms and pronunciations looked upon as ignorant or as a sign of intellectual weakness among my peers. While we should of course correct each others’ English, and especially our students’ English, just as we should not be so judgmental of non-native speakers when they slip and say something ungrammatical, or mispronounce a word, so we should we be mindful that even native speakers can have a good excuse, such as coming from a low-SES and low-education-attainment household and social environment.

I would also like to say it does irritate me a bit when academic peers assume (by their attitudes, if not also by their words) that I had it very easy growing up, being a straight white male. Yes, I did not have the disadvantages of being a non-straight-white-male, and I can’t say my suffering compares to those in other disadvantaged groups. But don’t ever assume anyone had it easy in life, until you really know his or her life story.Report

Sacco
Sacco
6 years ago

It is easy to get the impression from the 70+ comments here that philosophers are oblivious to socioeconomic issues and that the profession is a hostile place for the non-elite. So as not to leave the uninitiated who happen to be reading this thread wholly with this impression, I’ll just mention that I would not be as far along into our profession as I am now had it not been for a good number of philosophers who were deeply empathetic about my situation. I’ll spare everyone my sob story, but I will say that when I eventually got myself into college, I had professors who helped out at every step of the way. From mentioning that I didn’t have enough money to take the GREs more than once in my graduate school letters of recommendations to even offsetting the costs of graduate school applications, it was my philosophy professors who, more than anyone else, understood my financial plight and contributed toward alleviating it.Report

Anon Prof
Anon Prof
6 years ago

I’m grateful for this thread, and I have really benefitted from reading other people’s stories. And I appreciate a point made earlier (by Shieva maybe?) about distinguishing men and women who come from blue collar families from men and men and women who come from families that have suffered unemployment. I’d guess that people in the second category might be more likely to hide their background or feel shame talking about it. I fall into that category at least. My parents have suffered chronic unemployment my entire life, partly due to health issues, partly due to bad luck, and partly due to lack of educational opportunities. And I know my parents feel a lot of shame over the really rough periods—when we had to leave our house, when the power got turned off or the car repossessed, when friends and relatives would have to buy our groceries, and when we’d rely on government assistance (which was not reliable). I can only speak for myself, but I would be a little bit embarrassed to be labeled professionally as someone who came from a low-income family. And my parents and siblings would be *mortified* to have that label publicly applied to them. It may not be reasonable to feel this way, but I can certainly understand why people hide or downplay their background.

I was ridiculously lucky. I was able to go to college for free. I had mentors there I could confide in, and who looked out for me. Often in very practical ways. They’d invite me over for dinner during spring break, when dining halls were closed and most of the other students at my elite college were on beach trips. One even bought me my first set of dress clothes for an interview. All of this was done mostly without any fanfare, which was great because I would have been embarrassed to take too much charity. I had a lot, a lot of help.

Now I feel mostly at home in academia, and I try to look out for students who might be in my earlier situation. And my family is doing a little better, though they still struggle and we definitely inhabit different worlds as adults. If you want to help out folks who are in a similar situation, I’d say a good first place to look is our undergrads (Do you have students who never leave the dorm for short school vacations? They might need an assist).

And realize that people might have really complicated feelings about their social and economic background. For example, it might seem safe, reasonable and totally correct to openly assert that only an idiot would quit high school to get married… or vote for a tea party candidate… or eat takeout fried chicken for dinner… or go to a certain kind of church…. I see claims like this on blogs and Facebook all the time. And I hear them even more often in well-meaning academic conversation. Realize your colleagues and students might be nodding along in public agreement while at the same time worrying because you are describing their parents or siblings… people they really care about.Report

Anony2
Anony2
6 years ago

In response to one of Aaron W’s comments, I would suggest that there are all kinds of signs by which people of a higher socio-economic class recognize that others do or do not belong to their own group. Language usage — slang, idioms, grammatical constructions, accent, intonation and other matters of pronunciation — is a big part of it, but there are others.

And of course language usage does not always signal any difference in educational attainment, but people who don’t know much about language or are not very worldly, yet are bourgeois, will think it does. I have seen people in philosophy made fun of for their accents where the differences were a function of regional differences not class differences, yet where it was clear that all the parties concerned believed that class was at issue.

I like that Aaron spoke of the educational attainment of “households”. The language of an educated person can contain vestiges of the language and culture of an uneducated household; and similarly a middle class (in terms of income) household may be formed by people who are from families who have been impoverished for generations. Poverty leaves its marks even when people have been out of poverty for a generation.

Often people of a higher socio-economic class won’t experience their own reactions to someone of a different socio-economic class as judgments that the other ‘belongs’ or does not belong; rather, they will experience their reactions as judgements that the other person is being odd or unusual or graceless. Too often our ego-centric predicament does not occur to us. The judgmental nature of philosophy so encourages us to forget the self-reflective part of it.Report

Liz
Liz
6 years ago

I heard a joke recently that made me think of this thread:

Freshman student from a non-privileged background is lost on campus of *fancy school*. S/he stops to ask a fellow student for directions:
Freshman: “Excuse me, do you know where the library’s at?”
Upperclassman (imagine a douche-y tone): “Here at *fancy school*, we don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”
Freshman: “Well, do you know where the library’s at, motherfu**er?”Report

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

Oh God, the teeth! I had forgotten about that. I have enough money now that I could probably get the crookedness and chips fixed, but I’ve decided to embrace the wonkiness.Report

anon 12/19
anon 12/19
6 years ago

There appears to be some significant amount of socioeconomic background diversity in philosophy, if this thread is any indication. But perhaps there are extremely few philosophers who actually come from “poverty,” since many of the anecdotes have described “working class” or “blue collar” backgrounds.

Meanwhile, blacks make up roughly 1.3 percent of the philosophy profession in the U.S. Anyone interested in this state of affairs might find the following link helpful:
http://dailynous.com/2014/08/28/blacks-in-philosophy-in-the-us/
Maybe the post attracted few comments because it appeared during the summer (though the UPDirectory post, which prompted the current one, also has few comments).

The distinctive significance of racial underrepresentation in the U.S. is not mainly a function of comparative individual disadvantage or suffering. Nor is racial privilege (or its lack) generally a function of socioeconomic status — which is a foundational feature of the U.S.Report

anony2
anony2
6 years ago

anon 12/19,

You say “racial underrepresentation in the U.S. is not mainly a function of … socioeconomic status” but that it is a foundational feature of the U.S.

It is certainly a foundational feature of the US, but that does not mean that it is not sustained for economic reasons, nor that it did not come about in the first place for economic reasons. Yes, at the level of the individual actor, it’s racism (=fear, hate, ignorance, ego-centricity). But I don’t think the racist structure that philosophy so enthusiastically participates in (while all the time shaking its head, tearing at its hair and asking itself how can this be, how can this be?) is entirely explained by the conscious intentions of individual actors.

But that’s a whole big discussion about individualism vs. ‘holism’ in the explanation of social structures I guess.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

These stories (thanks so much to everyone who has offered their own story — it is helpful to hear these things) make me worry about how I set up my syllabi. I assign work that is intended to put virtually all students in a position to succeed. Often that requires a significant amount of work. You get better at philosophy by doing it. So my students are assigned a lot of outside work, e.g., my logic students have proofs to do just about every time we meet. But I do constrain myself: I try to keep in mind that students are taking other classes. But it is hard to imagine how anyone — even a motivated, diligent, skillful, advanced student — could succeed taking four classes like mine in addition to working even 20 hours a week. (I worry about this with student athletes as well.)

What to do? Cut back on the work required? But then I’d either leave them unprepared for exams and the like, or I’d have to cut back on what I expect to learn — and in either case, the classes would become very, very easy for students who don’t have to work. Go full speed ahead? But then students who already are burdened get that burden doubled.

Anyone have a good solution to this?Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Anon 12/19,

It seems to me that your last claim depends on what you mean by “generally.” For any individual selected at random, is racial privilege (or lack thereof) a function of socio-economic status? No. But is the obvious racial privilege enjoyed by white people in the U. S. taken as a whole a function of the relative socio-economic status of whites compared to blacks? If it were *not* so, then a fair and just redistribution of wealth proportional to their relative population sizes need not have any bearing on racial privilege. But I think this is pretty obviously false. Suppose that blacks as a group miraculously came to possess a level of economic power comparable to whites. What force does racial privilege have left to exert in this scenario? Certainly many whites would still be prejudiced against blacks, but who cares? Being joked about and excluded from boring dinner parties (as happens today in many communities to Asians, Jews, and Muslims) is much better than serving as the politically and economically powerless scapegoat of a domestic police state. But maybe I am misunderstanding your point. I enjoyed your comment. Thanks.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

For another contemporary example, see this beautiful story by Brian McLaughlin about growing up with Ernie Lepore (they were both wrestlers): “There were no free school lunches in those days. Making weight was easy.” http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/lepore/images/front-matter2.pdfReport

Non
Non
6 years ago

I could read here stories about people from the working class or from “the south”. Mine is quite different but still about being poor. My story might help with diversity, I think. I come from a country so small and so poor that people do not have a cliche about it. So, I guess, I am spared from hearing offensive comments. But the problem is not less painful. I am a grad student at an important US university, but god forbid you would ever complain about money. I can see it in everyone’s eyes: it is bad taste; what are you doing here? is it not irresponsible of you to study philosophy when you are so poor? The supposition is, of course, philosophy is for people who can afford it. Especially professors feel offended when you speak about it. They become suspicious that you want something from them; more money, for example. You become a pain in the butt. Probably most of them do not know that those of us that come with a student visa are not allowed to work and cannot take a loan. We cannot leave the academia and just find a job (I do not know if these are “privileges”, but oh boy, do I envy people who can do that!). We have to make it or we are more or less metaphorically speaking, dead.Report

George Gale
George Gale
6 years ago

I should probably just keep my mouth shut, but the discussion above has brought back some feelings, emotions, thoughts, that I haven’t experienced for years. So, I’ll just briefly recount a few things and exit; maybe some might find it interesting. Maybe not. My dad had an ed degree, but, except for when he got called back during Korea, our family never had any money, and my dad was in and out of work for the rest of his life. I got my first gun when I was six. From that point on, I brought home game fairly regularly, and continued to do so until I got out of grad school. My grandfather taught me to fish at about the same age. I brought fish home regularly, too, and again until grad school. While my family didn’t need the fish and game I brought home to avoid starvation, it was most certainly welcomed as an addition to the larder. When my dad said that anything I could contribute to the family would be helpful–and he referred to his having had a paper route at a young age himself–I got a paper route the Summer between third and fourth grade. I threw my last paper the day before I left for college. My first season playing PeeWee football was in fifth grade. I lettered at center/outside linebacker at a very football-centric Northern California high school. Had I not gotten seriously injured, I’d have played in college. The Summer before college I worked laying concrete with a company that did patios and driveways; in Sacramento, you had to start at 5 AM, because by noon the concrete set up in the heat faster than you could get it worked. So there was never a period in my youth when I was not working at physical jobs, and/or engaged in grimy sports.

I got lucky re: college. Got into an elite Jesuit university, where, for the first time, I met lots of elite folks, from very fancy prep schools all around the country. Strange. No question I felt instantly put down. But somehow, I just got pissed off, said more than once to myself “fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” and just soldiered on, worked my three jobs, pumping gas and assembling cars at GM. But when I discovered philosophy, everything changed. Once I got excited, and threw myself into philosophy, my classmates noticed, and began to respect me, and ultimately, everything worked out–some of those guys are still among my best friends–they don’t hold it against me that I’m a penurious philosophy professor.

But I can *still* feel today my illease, my anxiety, my underclassness in that place. [Especially when it became a question of trying to ask one of the equally elite young women out for a date (yes, this was a long time ago!). Just thinking about it right at this moment makes my gut twist a bit…]

Then, I went on to grad school at a fairly decent–and highly reputed–state school for my MA. There, we were all rough and tumble, it was the mid-60s and we were all in it for the intellectual excitement. I have no idea what the class mix was there, but I suspect it was West Coast non-elite. Same when I went on to my PhD at a UC campus: no class pressures, so far as I could see then, or retrospect now. And my Doktormutter was as down-to-earth (maybe more) than I was. A Jewish girl from the Milwaukee ghetto.

Of course, when I went for a while to read and write at Oxford, whoa, whole different story. So I bought a Harris tweed jacket, and wore it with my Levi’s. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

We were lucky then, ever so lucky. Philosophy was still such a weird major, that only odd ducks went into it. A really odd duck like me was just as welcome as anyone else. But then, maybe it wasn’t just the times, maybe it was also the fact that it was California. I can well imagine that if I were a kid with my background from, say, upstate New York, my experience would have been wildly different. Maybe at Boston College or Fordham I wouldn’t have been allowed to say “fuck ’em etc.” and I would have been ground down. And you from the South, especially the rural South, had/have an onus upon you that I can’t imagine beating. Somehow it’s still ‘ok’ (!!) to beat up on you guys.

I suspect that class today–especially in light of your comments above–is much more a burden in philosophy than it was in my day, two generations ago. I’m so very sorry that that’s the case. This thread is useful in bringing that out.Report

Andy
Andy
6 years ago

I’m a Latino and son of an immigrant from the poorest country in South America. My dad was fairly privileged there but when he immigrated to the USA he came with $500 and no college degree. My mom is the daughter of a baker and a grocery store checker in Chicago. My dad didn’t want us to learn Spanish because we were Americans now, so we spoke English at home, but all his extended family spoke Spanish when together so I learned it anyway (with supplemental help from good Spanish teachers in school later). We moved around when I was young. When I was thirteen my dad got fired from a job because his racist boss hated Latinos and as a result we moved to yet another state. We never had much money, but my parents had credit cards. They’d pay off the debts finally in the 90s. But I was precocious and inward and school came easily. I didn’t know what college was until I was a senior in high school, though; I had good teachers in my public schools who figured out that this valedictorian was clueless about higher education in America and directed me to a fine liberal arts college that would pay my way (my parents said they’d try to help a little with a public university, but I took the full ride). I was the first member of my extended family to go to college. All my friends there had at least one parent with an MD, JD, or PhD. I did well enough, but again I was a clueless senior and didn’t know what grad school was; but I asked my profs how to be able to do what they did, because it seemed so fun, and they helped me out; and I got into an excellent doctoral program. I had expected just to get a regular job but grad school seemed like a scam worth taking: you pay me to take classes? Now I’m a tenured faculty member at a top public research university, and my parents still ask me when I’m going to get a real job. They haven’t understood my work since it was homework in eighth grade. It gets lonely. I feel it the most strongly at APAs, at rich person hotels that cost a week’s groceries a night; and I just want to talk shop; can’t we just meet on a campus? I didn’t get into this for luxury. I have a family now and I gravitate more and more away from America, where they look down on my people; where faculty act like the rich people they are and fight to get paid more and more and more while they pledge to combat inequality; where colleagues sneer at the religiosity of my family (as others here have reiterated). It gets lonely. But I have done so well: I write from a research fellowship in the south of France, living a life I could only read about as a child. My children will know a different life, because I have learned to wear the mask, have learned to talk with the masters, to hold my own. It is a wonderful grace but it’s very hard to relate to colleagues who’ve walked such different paths; and it gets lonely. We who’ve lived differently should stand together.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

This thread has a paradigm case of microagression. A thread intended to encourage people to share their experiences has required them to defend their status.Report

Al Mele
Al Mele
6 years ago

It seems that some people would like to hear from people like me. So here goes. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I’m from a blue collar family. My father is a retired mailman. He tended bar at night to make ends meet. My mother worked just as hard taking care of five kids. My first job was at a lovely, elite liberal arts college, Davidson College. I have to admit that I felt out of place there for a while. I wrote it off to “culture shock.” I grew up in and around Detroit (a city of 1.8 million people then), and Davidson College is in a very small southern town. Anyway, I came to love the place. Probably, about half way through that job of 21 years, an older friend of mine who also works in the philosophy of action told me that he and I would never end up at classy universities because we were so clearly blue collar guys and people who teach at classy universities like to hire classy people like themselves. I knew that there was something to this, because I knew that people tend to feel more comfortable when associating with people like themselves. But I have to say that it didn’t bother me much personally. For one thing, I’ve never cared about having prestige by association (with a given group of any kind). Also, I like to think I’m guided solely by quality-of-life considerations in making decisions about where to work (and prestige by association isn’t one of them for me). I should add that my friend was exaggerating, of course. There are philosophers from working class backgrounds at classy universities.

I have a lot of friends in philosophy. Many of them are from blue collar families and are doing very well. My advice to young people in philosophy with blue collar backgrounds who sometimes feel a bit at sea is to be yourself and work hard at what you love. I don’t want to minimize the problems that you encounter, but I do want to offer encouragement. I feel very fortunate to have a career in philosophy. It’s wonderful to make your living doing what you love.Report

anonymoustenured
anonymoustenured
6 years ago

Anon grad student– the chances aren’t high that it is my office, in particular, to which you refer, and since I share your sense of being a member of a statistic minority on account of being from a lower that middle class background, I also think it’s likely you’re making some correct general presumptions about the class backgrounds of most professors whose shelves are lined with glorious books. All that said, however, a student now might get the same impression walking into my office, and in terms of class background, I’m just as much a freak of luck as are you. When I got my first tt job and realized that academic presses would sometimes send one *Free* books, I was over the moon, and said something to my colleagues and (former) advisors about how incredibly awesome it is to get free books. They looked as me utterly puzzled. Then, of course, I remembered: right, this isn’t a big deal for them. All of which is just to say–do remember that there’s at least a chance that those book-lined shelves of someone’s office belong to someone like me, who has taken advantage of every opportunity to get free books an academic can get (free from the press for reviewing for classes, review a ms. and get free books–sometimes I still get ‘kid at xmas’ about that one, etc)Report

Anon Assistant Prof in US
Anon Assistant Prof in US
6 years ago

Thanks for this thread, Justin, and for others for sharing stories. Just sharing mine too.

I’m a first generation college student from a non-English-speaking country. My father started as a tractor driver and gradually progressed to a supervisor position in the same company. I remember helping my father write memos when he was progressing in his job, because he couldn’t put a proper sentence together in writing. His schooling was four years of doing things like digging crab pools for his teacher. My mother was unemployed for much of my youth, but worked occasional jobs in child care, as a secretary, and as a cleaner. I remember my mother often having only the equivalent of roughly $20-30 in today’s US money (adjusted for cost) to figure out meals for the week for a family of 5. Don’t know how she did it sometimes. I worked every school holiday since I was 13, doing things like cutting grass, picking up trash, and emptying dog poop bins from local dog parks. Truly disgusting. I wore hand-me-down clothes or clothes that my mother made until I could buy more “fashionable” items with my own money. (Not that I had great taste.) I ended up in college in part because I was always studious and good at schoolwork, and in part through a series of accidents. I took student loans and received some government aid from my country. Without that I doubt I could have gone to college at all. And I doubt I could have gone to college in the US, given the high tuition costs. I still had to work a few different jobs through my undergrad studies to make ends meet. I’m constantly conscious of how easily things could have been very different for me. I often look at service industry workers and imagine myself in their place, feeling the sore legs and feet, and thinking about how much of the shift is left.

So many of the previous commenters’ experiences ring true for me, both the good and the bad. I too couldn’t believe that I could get paid to study philosophy in graduate school, and felt rich when I started receiving a $14,000 stipend / TA pay. I appreciate the real difficulties that those with families or illnesses can have making ends meet on a graduate stipend or TA pay. But for someone like me who had no family and was relatively healthy, this was the first time I didn’t have to count every penny. I even had enough money to visit my home country regularly. Imagine how rich I feel now that I have a job. (And yes, the free books! Now that I have oodles of money to buy them.) I would just mention that I’m particularly grateful to an undergraduate teacher who cared enough to tell me about the existence of graduate school in the US, and encouraged me to apply. I was so lucky that he was there. I otherwise completely lacked the cultural capital to even envisage the possibility of the path that I ended up taking.

Although I’m overall very lucky and happy in the profession, I do also share some of the feelings of faking it with cultural references. In my case, I also feel the expectation to have upper-middle class tastes being compounded with the expectation to be knowledgeable of all kinds of Anglophone cultural and historical reference points that I didn’t grow up with and wasn’t taught about in school. I can’t imagine the tables turned with respect to what’s expected of whom here, or what sort of ignorance is acceptable or not judged (unintentionally) to be a mark against your intelligence. I’m not asking for anyone to change their own cultural reference points. But it would be great to be a bit more conscious of what sorts of tacit expectations are often imposed on people in professional-social contexts, regarding what tastes or knowledge intelligent people have in common. I often also feel a bit alienated from my family back in my home country. They have always been supportive, but I can’t convey to them what I do or what my life is now like. It’s a weird middle place to be.

I’m a white woman. I recognize that being white has helped me throughout my life. This discussion had made me realize that I don’t usually feel my gender in professional-social contexts nearly as pointedly as I feel my class and cultural difference. Not to minimize the existence of gender norms or biases.Report

Anon, obviously
Anon, obviously
6 years ago

Many of these posts have been very interesting; thank you for them. I see a few themes which I’d like to underline as they resonate so well with my experiences. Unlike many on this thread I wouldn’t say I grew up in a “blue-collar” or “working-class” family, but rather a deeply poor one. My family of a single mom and four kids was homeless at many points in my childhood, living in our car or on the graces of a relative or family friend, and occasionally on the street. No one in my current career as a graduate student knows this. Occasionally I would stay at my middle-class father’s house for a few weeks. Whenever he dodged paying child support (often months at a time until an uninterested court would track him down) we were once again without resources. This led to my attending a different school almost every year growing up, yet I was able to get into college, where I took every loan available to me and worked 40 hours a week under the table while going to school full time, since this money allowed me to help my family while attending classes. I took time off after school to work, but eventually returned to graduate school where like several of the posters I felt like I’d won some kind of lottery to be paid as a graduate student to BE A PHILOSOPHER!! (most of which I use to help family members.) With great luck I will be able to get a job either in academia or at least one where my PhD is an asset, but if not, it is still a few years of a (for my family) well paid job for far less labor than any job I had before.

The themes I’d like to highlight are, first, rage at the entitled attitude of many of my colleagues. As some in this thread have pointed out, it is possible to “pass” (though at great strain and cost), and I think I can do so quite well, due in no small part, I expect, to those times spent with my father. I can sound like him if I need to, and I do need to here, all the time. So I get to hear unfiltered complaints from fellow graduate students about how hard the workload is, or how unfair the job market is. These complaints often sound less like justice-based critiques of the exploitation of graduate students (which surely exists) or critiques of a broken and unfair academic system (which also surely exists), but rather the whining of privileged people who have never had a real job, and who all their lives have been told what to do, and rewarded massively for doing what they were told. Now they face a situation where if they do what’s expected of them, statistically they will NOT be rewarded with the job they desire, and they’re angry about it. If I had done what was expected of me by my underfunded high schools, I would have dropped out, or at least never considered college. Therefore complaints in a shocked tone that it isn’t FAIR that there aren’t many jobs seems like a sick joke, and one that I have to pretend I agree with.

Another theme is the ambivalence I have about philosophy. On the one hand, that I am able to succeed academically and yet chose a discipline with such poor prospects makes me feel guilty and stupid for missing the opportunities to help myself and my family more. On the other hand, I did so because I truly love philosophy and what it can be when it engages with real issues, rather than a chance for jerks to sound intelligent and impress one-another. I love philosophy, but am often embarrassed by the ways in which it is focused away from the world, and often angry at those who practice it. I’ll end with a song reference, since someone earlier said they often hear Phil Ochs in their head at department events. The song that routinely comes to my mind when (socio-economically) privileged colleagues talk to me is “Common People” by Pulp, particularly the part that starts at 3:51. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KjAVr1WSu0Report

B.P.
B.P.
6 years ago

You and me both, sister. In my own case, I work at the college in my small, Midwestern hometown (where I’m currently helping to raise the fifth generation of my family) and feel as if I have to smile and nod when senior colleagues (fortunately, none in my own department)–and especially those who go the most out of their way to present themselves as enlightened about social justice and committed to inclusivity–shit all over it and the people who live in it.

It’s good to know we’re not alone.Report

A MacAskill
A MacAskill
6 years ago

I’d feel really uncomfortable describing myself as being ‘from poverty’. I’m pretty sure our family income (for two people) was greater than £8,500 a year when I was a child, and that even at my poorest as an adult my income was more than £6,000 a year, which means I have always had an income in the top 20% globally. That being said, I am from a lower socioeconomic class from within a developed country (working class to lower middle class during my childhood), and some the experiences described here are familiar. I certainly understand that those from a lower socioeconomic class relative to their home country are underrepresented in philosophy, and I imagine those who are poor by global standards are vastly underrepresented in philosophy (I’m not sure I have even met a philosopher from a developing country). I’m sure both groups face distinct difficulties: both from prejudice and from the practical difficulties that poverty and class bring about. So it might be useful for the list to distinguish between relative poverty – perhaps as ‘low socioeconomic class’ – and absolute poverty – perhaps defined as having a childhood income that’s not in the top 30% globally (for a family of four that means having a total family income that’s less than about $9,700 per year per, going by the Giving What We Can calculator, which takes into account differences in cost of living across different countries).Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

A MacAskill — I’d point out that your “Absolute Poverty” is defined in relative terms.Report

A MacAskill
A MacAskill
6 years ago

Yes, I realized after posting that those were unfortunate terms to use: I meant relative to a country and not relative to a country, but it’s still a relative measure of poverty in the latter case. It seems like relative poverty might be of more interest in this context insofar as we care about prejudice, but an absolute measure would probably be fine too.Report

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago

I come from a working class background–my father is a factory worker/skilled laborer and my mother was a stay at home parent for most of my childhood–and was a first generation college student. Some of the stories on this thread are familiar and some not so much. Yes we shopped at thrift stores and yard sales and yes there was a lot of anxiety about money and a lot of energy going into planning economically to avoid tragic outcomes should something unexpected happen. But food insecurity, lack of stable housing, etc. were thankfully not part of my childhood. (Maybe in some way that means my class background is not the kind intended to be picked out by the thread? I’m not sure.) College, though, was not considered a given for me–in fact the expected path when I was young was essentially to get married, make babies, and be a stay at home mom. It was only because I was exceptionally academically oriented from a very young age that the idea of higher education began to enter my parent’s radar. I remember distinctly in 8th grade class rankings were done in my middle school (a decent–not great but not awful school academically) of about 500 students and I was in the top 1% or so. My mother started crying and said ‘you really are going to go to college aren’t you?’ Though I had been talking about college for years, it became clear to me then that my parents had possibly been somewhat humoring me in going along with such talk. I was very lucky though that while my parents knew absolutely nothing about four year colleges, financial aid, etc. were willing to learn with me. Also I would say my parents financial security improved through my childhood so that at least in terms of steady income by the time I was of high school age things were less financially strapped. So my parents were able to help with college financially. And thankfully I earned a very significant merit scholarship to a prestigious liberal arts college that was in the very same town in which I had grown up. This made my education extremely affordable such that I amazingly graduated from college with no student loans debt whatsoever (part of the scholarship was that the college covered the part of financial aid that normally takes the form of loans with grant money.) Having no student loan debt leaving undergrad made the decision to go to pursue a Ph.D. (and thus not have a job providing a real salary for 6 years much easier). Even better, in my last year of undergrad I won a Javits fellowship that covered 4 years of graduate school with a higher stipend than offered at the university which I completed my Ph.D. and thus cut down on the need to accept TA positions for tuition, stipend, and healthcare. This is all to say, I was VERY VERY VERY VERY lucky.

Much of the impostor syndrome type concerns some expressed above or the just feeling like one doesn’t fit in, then, are familiar to me. But being lgbtq and a woman as well as first generation, it can be hard to sort out where class is behind those issues for me and where the other identities are. I would say that in some ways going to the liberal arts college I went to was more of a socioeconomic class shock, and so more of a constant reminder of my difference than anything that has come since as it was an extremely wealthy institution (more so than any I have attended or worked at since) and students seemed to by and large come from very well-off backgrounds. I actually found that the noticeability of my own discomfort or impostor syndrome or lack of seeming to fit in decreased significantly by the time I entered graduate school. I often felt, actually, that since most other grad students were at that point living on their own, financially independent from their parents certain kinds of class differences that were very obvious in college became more difficult to see. Certainly some differences in cultural capital were still there (and are still there for me today) even as I have a tenure-track position and my wife (from a somewhat similar class background) has a well-paying professional career and thus we are now on the very opposite end of the class spectrum in terms of income and career. I suspect there are three main reasons why, for me, class plays a somewhat less significant role in my own story or in what made my path in academia difficult: 1) because within the group of the working-class I had a number of privileges to begin with (e.g. relatives in more solidly middle-class positions and income levels), lived in a small city in which the wealthier and poorer areas fed into the same decent secondary schools, was lucky to have relative financial stability in my childhood, etc., 2) because I got so very lucky in the ways I mentioned above (various scholarships/fellowships that made affording education amazingly easier), and 3) because the other aspects of my identity have really been much more salient such that even if my class background mattered a good deal (which I believe it did), sex/gender and sexuality have mattered MUCH more.

Given #3 and for other reasons, then, while I’ve always been quite sympathetic to Marxist thinking, some of the discussion above suggesting that class is the most fundamental oppression, that other kinds of oppressions would disappear if only class oppression were undone, etc. does not fit well with my own experience at all. Liguro asked above, for instance, if blacks and whites had similar economic situations what would be left of white privilege and wouldn’t blacks then be more like Asians, Jews, or Muslims. Three thoughts jumped immediately to mind in reading that: 1) I can’t see how given the recent report on the CIA torturing terror suspects–numerous of them apparently innocent and wrongfully held in the first place–the one could seriously suggest that the main disadvantage to being Muslim in the U.S. today is not being invited to upper-class dinner parties (and in the case of Asians it would seem to ignore the significant negative consequences that bias can have even on a group that does not suffer significant economic deprivation), 2) more seriously I don’t know, in imagining a more comparable wealth/income situation for blacks and whites how to think about that coming about and I think that would matter a great deal in what it means for racial privilege/disadvantage. For instance, if tomorrow suddenly wealth/income were evenly distributed amongst the races would that reverse the biases and psychological effects that studies find that lead people to believe black children are older than they actually are, to be more likely to falsely believe in a split-second observation that a black person vs. a white person is holding a gun rather than a non-threatening object, etc. and would differential police force used against blacks and whites then be reversed as well?). 3) How does the view that socioeconomic class is the most fundamental oppression and undoing it will make sense of anti-lgbq, anti-trans, and misogynistic oppression? White middle-class lgbqt people, for instance, are still vulnerable to anti-lgbtq violence despite their socioeconomic status even though surely those with less socioeconomic status are even more vulnerable. Similarly, the refusal of the law to recognize lgbq families (or to do so only in exchange for large amounts of $, e.g. in the case of second-parent adoption) is most harmful to lower income and impoverished lgbq people; yet it is surely still extremely harmful even to well-off lgbq people to. For instance, in most states which do not allow second-parent adoption and/or same-sex marriage one parent in a same-sex couple will have no legal rights to the children of the couple and no amount of $ can buy legal parental status should the biological parent of the children decide to cut off all contact forever between the minor children and the other parent. Finally with regard to sex/gender, how does sexual violence against women (which again is still quite harmful to otherwise privileged women even if it burdens the worst off women socioeconomically the most) directly tie to class oppression?

Perhaps the thought regarding sex/gender, sexuality, and gender identity is something more about the origin of those categories and the oppression based on them in the first place–that it is a direct result of capitalism and the need to control workers, to focus resentments of working class people, etc. at some despised group rather than at capitalist system itself that these oppressions emerged in the first place? I don’t doubt that capitalism was likely *part* of the story of these oppressions, but it strikes me as very unlikely that capitalism could be *most* of the story. And thus when imagining these post-revolution situations in which we imagine what is left of various kinds of oppressions it doesn’t seem at all obvious that sex/gender oppression, sexuality oppression, and gender identity oppression would have largely disappeared.Report

another anon
another anon
6 years ago

I frequently worry that my bad teeth telegraph how I grew up. Class is not as ‘visible’ as race or gender, but you can still sometimes see it.Report

Johanna
Johanna
6 years ago

It’s funny, in the UK departments I’ve been familiar with, it seems everyone is scrambling to sound as blue collar as they can, though many of them come from privileged backgrounds. Solidarity seems to involve talking about your working class grandparents and never wearing anything nicer than jeans and a sweater.

Participating in this game is doubly ironic for me, as I actually do come from a poor background and have had to learn to ‘fit in’ with privileged peers, only to have to reign that in when I’m with privileged-but-Marxist philosophers. Add to that the acting that necessarily accompanies being a woman in a male-dominated field, (and an American in the UK to boot) and you have one very elaborate farce.

My own way of adjusting has been to appreciate the comedy of it all and feel lucky I’ve got this far. That said, I think people from diverse backgrounds have a hell of a lot to offer philosophy and should use their difference to challenge the assumptions of the discipline and of their colleagues.Report

CW
CW
6 years ago

My dad wore a tie to work, but we were very poor because he was an alcoholic. My mom often raised us (four) alone, as he was in and out of our lives. He never paid child support, even when he had some money. We received baskets from the church. We were on the school’s free lunch program. We moved a lot, and lived in bad neighborhoods and trashy apartment complexes. We lived with my grandparents for a while (solid, blue collar folk). Mom got our clothes at yard sales. She worked at a fast food restaurant for a while. The owner let us wait for her after school at a table in the back of the dining area. He’d give us the fries that were too old to sell. We’d sit back there and do homework until mom got off work, then we’d walk home. I had to laugh when someone above said “trailer park philosopher”! There weren’t many trailer parks where I grew up (we were usually referred to as “white trash”) but I did live in a trailer for several years. I hated school, because I always felt different and so poor, but at least the school work was easy for me.

Thanks, Justin, for starting this thread.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Sorry to post this as anonymous but I don’t think my identity matters to this observation. Over the past few months I have seen philosophers trashed for their supposedly “privileged” backgrounds because they attended elite undergraduate institutions. So did I, only because I had the help of scholarships I won, an enormous student loan, a lucrative full-time job over the summer, and 15 hours a week of campus job (the most we were allowed to have). My background was in not financially privileged, but I was privileged to have the benefit of things like parents who read to me and took me to the library all the time. One thing people can do to improve the situation is to stop criticizing everyone who goes to an elite college as if they were some kind of silver-spoon pampered pets. It’s tiresome.Report

Kyddo
Kyddo
6 years ago

As I child, a young adult and as a mature aged student, I have lived in entrenched poverty which has a vastly different impact on daily living and prospects for social inclusion, engagement and access as it infiltrates all aspects of your existence to the extent that after a period of time it adversely colours your thinking and erodes your capacity to even dream of your own potential. Living in a car or in couch surfing, making sacrifices about quality food, having access to transport, access to health care, or access to technology impacts on self respect on so many levels. It produces a great sense of shame that you can’t provide for yourself or share with others that also provokes a deep sense of loss. I think part of the exclusion and elitism comes from the disadvantage associated with non-participation. By not having the required knowledge to make successful applications or to apply for scholarships or programs when others are surrounded with supports and much more easily navigate these systems as it is part of their cultural inheritance – watching siblings, or parents or family associates access programs forms part of the training for navigating pathways. Whereas if you are going in blind it is a learning curve on all levels. Self esteem and confidence do come into play in a significant way because it relates to a sense of self worth and entitlement. For individuals who have come from secure backgrounds with a solid education this is not questioned at all and yet it is everything to someone who has had to decide if they are going to eat today or wash today. As others have noted, the other social indicators that someone’s background has not quite been the same is also indicated through language or manners or their choices of expression or taste preferences and that difference can either be embraced as a form of individualism or it can compound difference and form the basis for exclusion. On another note, John Rawls is a great example of a theorist whose conception of justice and fairness was forged through the difference he experienced through privilege. He resided on the other side of the fence and he could not comprehend why his welfare and entitlement was prioritised over others who were less fortunate.Report

JR
JR
6 years ago

I can identify with many of the comments here. My (lower) mid-class, divorced parents cut me off and kicked me out at 17. 10 years later I finished my BA while working lots of jobs and living close to the bone. I had $14,000 in student loan debt that I thought was impossibly crazy,….until I went to grad school out-of-state, unfunded at first, in an expensive city. 12 years out of grad school, I am a tenured professor who has yet to make a dent in my 100k debt. My colleagues travel, have nannies and house cleaning services, and buy new cars; I make loan payments and save aggressively for my kid’s college so history does not repeat itself. I could save more, buy less, donate more….

I will mention a great book of the subject of folks from working class families “crossing over” to white collar fields: Lubrano, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. http://www.amazon.com/Limbo-Blue-Collar-Roots-White-Collar-Dreams/dp/0471714399Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I’m really happy about this thread. A small addition: due to my background I had never been abroad or been on a plane until my MA. Since then (I’m now on a PhD programme) I’ve made 3 trips abroad, all involving planes (largely due to department funding, which I’m very grateful for) but I still haven’t been on a plane by myself – I’ve always been able to go to a conference with someone. I’ve now been accepted to a conference which will require me to fly alone. The worry of navigating airports by myself is almost enough to make me drop out of the conference, and this isn’t something I feel I can talk about to other students, most of whom have had family holidays abroad since a young age.Report

anonymoustenured
anonymoustenured
6 years ago

112– seriously. I too went to one of those ‘elite’ colleges (seeing it then, as I still do to some extent now, as my only chance ‘out’ of a life I didn’t want to have). The fact that that bit of my history is basically public knowledge only exacerbates the tendency people have to make all the presumptions of which folks have spoken on this and the other thread. Actual facts? I went to undergrad as an emancipated minor, worked full time (40 plus hours a week) to get through because elite college did not in those days know what to do in terms of financial aid with an emancipated minor, and took out enormous loans (the Federal government, otoh, recognized the legal category to which I belonged, so there’s that). Now tenured, I still have massive student loans — I will be past retirement age when they are paid off.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Thank you to everyone who has shared their stories here. I am inspired by the successes and worried by the failures. I have faced a lot of these same challenges myself, but have found myself strongly supported and nurtured by my professors. I am quite lucky, I guess.

I have been feeling a bit guilty recently about choosing philosophy as a major (and looking toward graduate school as well) because my family is in desperate need of my income. The big differences between my story and other stories on this thread are my age (I am much older –I would finish a Ph D. no sooner than age 51) and my primary education (I worked my own way through the private school I attended for high school.) Though my age is a handicap, I am most grateful for the educational and workforce experience that allows me to “pass”. Most people I interact with at school have no idea that I am virtually homeless unless I tell them. I know many of my neighbors could not do what I can do academically and socially. Education is the way out of poverty, but it is not an easy way.

At present, my husband, daughter, grandson and I all live with my parents. Thank God they are able to help us! There was a time when they could not. We have lived through cold winters with no heat or hot water –snuggled up around electric heaters at night and boiling water on a hot plate to wash dishes and faces. We have gone for years at a time relying on public transit and walking where ever we needed to go. And, yes, we have even slept in our car, though not for long. At the small, private college I attend, it is not unusual for other students to make comments about adults living at home with their parents, deriding them for being “lazy” or “free-loaders” who just need to get a job. I have had family members make the same type of comments to me- “You have no business going to school full-time. You should quit or only go part-time, then you could support your family.” Unfortunately, the reality is that I would lose my scholarships and my ability to go to school if I dropped to part-time. In addition, my student loans would start needing attention. In short, I would never finish and then my investment of time and money would be all for nought. I would like to teach at the college level, if only as an adjunct, but the reality of spending another three to six years on one blue-collar, unskilled labor income seems ridiculous –especially with a child and grandchild to support –but I am going to do my best.

I feel the isolation others have described above, when my classmates and professors are planning their Spring Break trips to Cabo or Europe, or they complain about “only” going to Myrtle Beach. I would LOVE to go to Myrtle Beach; I have never seen the ocean. I even feel a prick of jealousy when my professors talk about going to conferences. I would love to take advantage of these opportunities, but there is no way I could afford to go. It does make me feel out of place, but the isolation isn’t just in academia. My family isn’t talking about the same ideas that I am exploring. Because they haven’t been reading the same things I am reading, they have no frame of reference on which to build a discussion. It’s very lonely to come to big ideas and have no one to share them with. My consolation is that, because we have been so poor for so long, we have never been particularly enamoured of television and we read a lot. There’s always something to discuss. It’s just not always the same things I have to take apart. I feel as if I am between worlds, not quite fitting into one or the other place.

If nothing else, it is helpful to know that I am not alone in my struggles. As I said, I am very lucky to have landed where I did and to have the support I have. I only hope the momentum I’ve gained is enough to carry me through this spring’s graduation and beyond.Report

Corina
Corina
6 years ago

My parents never visited university and I grew up under rather poor circumstances. Currently I am a post doc, and I feel that I am the only one from a non-academic social background in my field. I feel very sorry that the UPdirectory did not include the category. Compared to the other two minorities to which I belong, female and LGBTQ, I always felt that the social background has much more adverse influences. I hope that the issue of social background will get more attention in the community. Thanks a lot for bringing some attention to the matter.Report

Corina Strößner
Corina Strößner
6 years ago

Reading all the comments and stories I wondered whether there is some interesst in having a “what it is like” style blog where people 1) can share their stories, 2) discuss how socio-economic matters influence the academic career, 3) how the discipline may be less discriminating, and 4) whether and why it is important that philosophy includes people from lower socio-economic background. I would love to co-manage such a blog if there are other persons who are willing to do this together. So if there is still anyone reading the post and the commments until the last one, I hope you can give me a sign whether this is worth considering…Report